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Iraq: As U.S. Pushes Ahead On Baghdad, Other Countries Try Diplomatic Route

A Russian diplomatic team is visiting Baghdad this week in the latest international effort to avert a U.S.-led war on Iraq. The visit comes amid revived talk of trying to solve the Iraq crisis through extended UN inspections, even as the United States continues military preparations.

Prague, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The past few days have seen several countries step up efforts to press the United States to deal with the Iraq crisis only within a United Nations framework. The drive includes Russia sending its deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr Saltanov, to Iraq this week to call for all sides to concentrate on finding diplomatic solutions.

Saltanov said upon arriving in Baghdad yesterday that, "we have to seize any chance to achieve and find a diplomatic and peaceful solution." Moscow, which has substantial business interests in Iraq, supports tough arms inspections but opposes any U.S. military action against Iraq without UN approval.

Separately, Germany and Canada this week repeated that they favor a new UN resolution specifically authorizing military action against Iraq before there is any U.S.-led campaign. That position is also taken by France and many Arab countries.

The diplomatic initiatives come as arms inspectors this week called for more time to perform their work of determining the extent to which Baghdad maintains weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. A spokesman for the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said early this week that inspections in Iraq could take up to a year to complete.

So far, U.S. and British officials have responded to the new diplomatic activity by stressing that they have no fixed time line for acting on Iraq. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that U.S. President George W. Bush has not set any date by which inspections should be completed.

Observers say that it is still too early to determine the impact of the new efforts to see that the Iraq crisis is solved multilaterally by the UN and not unilaterally by the United States, in conjunction with its closest ally, Britain. But the new drive is likely to be hampered by the fact that the window for diplomacy is rapidly narrowing as U.S. and British troop deployments to the Persian Gulf accelerate.

Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the buildup of troops in the Persian Gulf and the costs of keeping them there impose their own time line for Washington and London to make decisions. And those deadlines can only be marginally influenced by requests by other parties to give the UN inspection process more time. "I think the window of [opportunity] in which military action can begin is relatively limited, and it will be in the next few weeks that a decision will have to be made according to military criteria rather than purely political ones. I think that's the timetable we are working to, rather than the formal, legalistic timetable set out in the [UN] resolutions," Neep said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a hint of how costly it is to have troops in the Persian Gulf region when he said this week that the Pentagon needs more money to enable it to cope with the Iraq crisis and the war on terrorism simultaneously.

He said the Pentagon has to take money from different military accounts to pay for the Persian Gulf buildup and that the problem is largely caused by the U.S. Congress's refusal to grant an earlier Pentagon request for $10 billion in supplemental funds. He refused to estimate how much the Persian Gulf buildup has cost to date.

Amid such pressures, any extensions of time that Washington and London might give to the UN process would likely be a matter of weeks, not months.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week that London does not rule out returning to the UN Security Council for a second resolution on using force against Iraq but only if the effort does not turn into a deadlock that results in lengthy inaction. "The only qualification we've added [regarding going back to the Security Council for a new resolution] if you did have a breach [of Iraq's disarmament obligations and] went back to the UN, but someone put an unreasonable or unilateral blockdown on action, under those circumstances we've said we can't be in a position where we are confined in that way," Blair said.

Neep said that the coming weeks will likely see Washington and London give additional time to the UN inspections process beyond the approaching deadline of 27 January. That's when UN inspectors give their first required report to the Security Council.

Indeed, U.S. officials in recent weeks have backed off some earlier statements that 27 January would be a key date for any decision on military action.

But the analyst said Washington and London will also likely use that additional time to build their own public cases -- using evidence compiled by U.S. and British intelligence services -- that Iraq is not disarming. That information would bolster the case for action against Iraq even if the UN inspectors fail to find decisive evidence themselves. "The difficulty [for Washington and London] is in knowing whether [the UN inspectors] will say enough to add weight to the argument for going into Iraq, and I don't think we are going to see any killer [decisive] evidence produced by the inspectors," Neep said. "It may be that the case for military action can be assembled from a variety of sources, including the weapons inspectors, including the U.S., U.K. intelligence evidence of Saddam's [Iraqi President Hussein] noncompliance, gaps in the Iraqi declaration of the 8th of December, that kind of thing."

Washington and London hope that presenting such combined evidence would both strengthen public opinion for any war and help assure that they could win a second UN resolution on Iraq if they decide to seek one.

Meanwhile, the United States continued its preparations for a military campaign by formally calling on its NATO allies yesterday for assistance. The request included AWACs radar surveillance aircraft, force protection, and the stationing of Patriot missile-defense batteries in Turkey, a NATO member on Iraq's northern flank.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said today that the alliance has not yet decided whether to grant the U.S. request for support in any war against Iraq but that the proposals will be considered.