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Iraq: U.S. Congress Nears Vote To Back Military Force Against Baghdad

While the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush struggles to win approval for military action against Iraq, it is having an easier time convincing the U.S. Congress. Bush sent his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to Congress to testify about the U.S. plans for Iraq, and virtually the only opposition he met was from protesters.

Washington, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush appears to be moving closer to getting approval from Congress to take military action against Iraq.

Bush met at the White House Wednesday morning with congressional leaders to discuss a resolution authorizing the action. Later in the day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared before a congressional committee to outline the administration's argument for quickly passing that measure.

Bush said that the White House and Congress will work together on the appropriate wording of the resolution. The president said it will address what he called Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's repeated defiance of the United Nations by interfering with UN weapons inspectors when they were in Iraq and for not readmitting them to his country after they were withdrawn nearly four years ago. "[Congressional leaders and I] talked about a resolution [regarding Iraq] out of Congress, and it was important for us to work with Congress to pass a strong resolution. I told the members that within the next couple of days, this administration will develop language that we think is necessary and we look forward to working with both Republicans and Democrats to get a resolution passed," Bush said.

After the meeting, leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives said they expect quick action in Congress in support of the president. And they said they expect the United Nations will also support Bush's position.

The UN had appeared to be ready to pass a strong resolution requiring Iraq to let the inspectors back into the country. On Monday, however, Hussein's government sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan saying the inspectors could return at any time, unconditionally.

Russia and France -- both permanent members of the UN Security Council, with veto power over any resolution -- immediately said the United States and the United Nations should wait and see if the inspections go well. As a result, they said, there was now no need for a new resolution because Saddam was beginning to obey an existing one.

U.S. diplomats, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, worked hard at the United Nations in hopes of persuading the Security Council to pass a new resolution, one that would strictly define the inspectors' rights and responsibilities.

After meeting with Bush, one member of Congress said he was confident that the UN members eventually will come around to the U.S. point of view. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat, South Dakota) said: "I believe, at the end of the day [ultimately], that the United Nations is going to be where it needs to be, standing strong in opposition to [Saddam Hussein's] ploy and recognizing that it is just that. We need to insist on open inspections. We need to insist on the destruction of weapons of mass destruction," Daschle said.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also held out hope that the United States could persuade key members of the Security Council to work with Washington to resolve the Iraq issue. "This is the essence of diplomacy, and I think that, as you've seen before, very often diplomacy moves in ways that aren't immediately apparent, at least through public statements, and the United States will continue to work very closely with our friends and allies at various levels of the government, and we're confident that at the time the vote takes place that the world will agree," Fleischer said.

Bush was meeting far less resistance from Congress than he was getting from the United Nations. Rumsfeld fielded few difficult questions Wednesday in his appearance before the House Armed Services Committee. In fact, voices were raised only once, when two women among the spectators stood up to chant their view that the United States should be satisfied with Iraq's agreement to readmit the inspectors.

"Inspections, not war! Inspections, not war!" they shouted.

The women's message also appeared on banners that they unfurled and on T-shirts that they showed when they opened their jackets. They were escorted from the hearing room without further incident.

After their departure, Rumsfeld reminded those in the hearing room that the protests were a good example of freedom of speech, which he said does not exist in Iraq. He also reiterated the Bush administration's position on the resumption of inspections. "The United States, as the president indicated, is not closed to the idea of inspections as an element of an effective response. But our goal can't be inspections. It has to be disarmament. That is where the threat is. The purpose of inspections is to prove that Iraq has disarmed, which would require that Iraq would reverse its decade-long policy of pursuing those weapons, and that is certainly something that Iraq is unlikely to do," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld said Hussein has made his weapons plants hard to find: Either they are underground, he said, or they are mobile. Therefore, he said, even the most thorough, the most intrusive inspections are unlikely to find weapons that the Iraqi leader wants to keep hidden.

The defense secretary conceded that this means the United States and the United Nations probably will never have what he called "perfect evidence" that Hussein is pursuing and stockpiling nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

According to Rumsfeld, the only way to get such evidence is to wait for Hussein to use one of these weapons. He said that would be like the European leaders of the 1930s who did nothing as Adolf Hitler rearmed Germany and threatened his neighbors.

Today, Rumsfeld told the committee, the world looks disdainfully on those leaders who let Hitler become a menace to the world. The secretary said this should not be the way today's leaders are remembered. "The question comes down to this: How will the history of this era be recorded? When we look back on previous periods of history, we see there have been many books written about threats and attacks that were not anticipated," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld also was asked why Iraq was suddenly the focus of the administration in the midst of its war on international terrorism. He was reminded that no one has established any connection between Iraq and the attacks of 11 September 2001. The defense secretary replied that Iraq is itself a terrorist state, even if it was not involved in those attacks, and therefore is a justifiable target in the war against terrorism.