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Iraq: Secretary Powell's Davos Speech Signals Darkening War Clouds

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined the U.S. case for war against Iraq in a speech yesterday to international business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. RFE/RL examines the reaction to Powell's message and what it may mean for the future.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 25-26 January appeared dismayed about the growing prospect of a U.S.-led war against Iraq, either with or without a new United Nations Security Council resolution specifically authorizing force against the Baghdad regime.

That was the feeling expressed by powerful international business leaders and politicians at Davos after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday argued the U.S. case for war. "The United States believes that time is running out. We will not shrink from war if that is the only way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. We continue to reserve our sovereign right to take military action against Iraq alone or in a coalition of the willing," Powell said.

Shortly after Powell's speech, King Abdullah of Jordan told the gathering he is pessimistic about prospects for a diplomatic resolution to the dispute: "Unfortunately, I believe that we're now a bit [too] late to see a way out, [to see] a diplomatic solution between Iraq and the international community. I am by nature very optimistic. A few months ago I might have had a different answer. But today I think that the mechanisms are in place and I think it would be very difficult -- it would take a miracle -- to find dialogue and a peaceful solution out of the crisis."

Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations, told RFE/RL that King Abdullah's assessment was shared by many European political and business leaders at Davos. "The feeling is that war is more likely than ever, not inevitable, but very probable," Moisi said.

Moisi said delegates at Davos, as well as much of Europe and the rest of the world, remain unconvinced by Powell's speech. "Though the arguments given by Colin Powell sound very convincing, the rest of the world is waiting for proof. How can he prove it? We need to be convinced. So, in a way, the European presence at Davos was even more troubled, not reassured, and not totally convinced by what they heard," Moisi said.

Powell outlined specific complaints expected to form the basis of Washington's argument that Iraq is already in material breech of last November's UN Security Council Resolution 1441. "After six weeks of [UN] inspections, the international community still needs to know the answers to key questions. Where is the evidence that Iraq has destroyed the tens of thousands of liters of anthrax and botulinum we know it had before it expelled the previous inspectors? Where is it? Account for it! Let it be verified by the inspectors. What happened to nearly 30,000 munitions capable of carrying chemical agents? The inspectors can only account for 16 of them. Where are they? Please! What happened to the 3 metric tons of growth material that Iraq imported which can be used for producing, in a very rapid fashion, deadly biological agents. Where are the mobile vans that are nothing more than biological-weapons laboratories on wheels? Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for a nuclear weapon?" Powell said.

Rosemary Hollis, Middle East program director at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL the question in London after Powell's speech is not whether there will be U.S.-led military action in the coming weeks, but rather, how such military action will be justified. "What Colin Powell has been doing is reemphasizing something that has come up periodically. It is not a question of the inspectors finding something. It is a demand that Iraq fall over backwards to make the inspectors happy and to show them things," Hollis said.

In fact, Hollis said, Powell's remarks do not reflect a new U.S. approach on what would constitute a material breach of Iraqi obligations. But she said it is the clearest enunciation, so far, of the issues Washington is likely to raise within the UN Security Council after it receives the UN weapons inspectors' report later today. "The examples weren't given before, but the emphasis was there. During the autumn, it was a line of argument that this was more than the inspectors going in to resume what they used to do and find what they could. It was more about the inspectors going in to be shown things by the Iraqis. [But] I fear that by trying to reemphasize that point now, it looks like changing the goalposts," Hollis said.

Hollis stressed that neither Washington nor London is changing the rules in the middle of the diplomatic process. But she said there is an appearance of "switching goalposts" because of inconsistent emphasis, by both the United States and Britain, on the need for Iraq to prove it has disarmed. "The U.S. administration, and the British one, lost charge of the media explanation of what's going on here. They lost the initiative. And they fell into the trap of waiting for the inspectors to find what they believed was there," Hollis said.

As a result, the antiwar movement that has been growing throughout Europe in recent months is now being embraced by the governments in Paris and Berlin, which made a joint stance last week against war.

And as Hollis noted, the French have the power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to veto any resolution specifically authorizing military action. "What has changed [in the past week] is that the French have given a signal that it's just possible they won't [support a new UN Security Council resolution]. From a French perspective, it could be better to stand aside and let the U.S. muck up all by itself rather than be party to something that is going to go wrong and be party to something that is going to give a fig leaf to the Americans," Hollis said.

Hollis said she anticipates "tremendous bargaining" at the UN headquarters in New York during the next week to figure out how to salvage the situation.

On the one hand, a go-it-alone approach by Washington is expected to seriously damage the credibility and authority of the UN Security Council as a forum for resolving future crises diplomatically.

On the other hand, Hollis said she doesn't expect France to be pressured or bluffed by Washington into supporting a new UN resolution in order to preserve the Security Council's reputation.

In fact, few analysts now think that the United States is using its military buildup in the Persian Gulf as a bluff for Security Council authorization.

To the contrary, Moisi said it is the United States that appears to be holding back on military action as a result of pressure from its European allies. "The American troops are in place. War is feasible now, tomorrow, and the cost of no war is very high. It's like a huge lion which is roaring and you are holding him by the leash. It is very painful not to unleash the big animal," Moisi said.

Moisi said he thinks the United States will launch an attack on Iraq within days, without the mitigating influence of allies like British Prime Minister Tony Blair. France and Germany want UN inspections to last for months. Moisi said the compromise position he foresees is a U.S.-led war against Iraq that starts within weeks rather than days or months.