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Iraq: European Letter Brings 'Coalition Of The Willing' Into Focus

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears now to have the backing of a significant number of countries for a possible war with Iraq. Bush, who is set for talks today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, received further support yesterday from nine European leaders and three more today for his tough stand against Baghdad, a development that analysts say could have a big impact on Iraqi diplomacy in the coming days.

Washington, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With an array of European countries voicing support for U.S. policy on Iraq, President George W. Bush moved closer to securing a broad "coalition of the willing" to back possible military action against Baghdad.

Yesterday, leaders from Britain, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Portugal signed a letter expressing support for the tough U.S. stance on Iraq, which the United States accuses of hiding weapons of mass destruction. Slovakia later said it supported the letter and today government leaders in Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia said they also back the contents of the letter.

For Bush, the letter was a breath of fresh air from Europe, where key powers France and Germany oppose much of his foreign-policy approach, especially a possible war in Iraq. France and Germany did not sign the letter, a fact that analysts say exposes clear shortcomings in the European Union's latest attempts to present a common foreign-policy approach.

Bush expressed delight with the show of support just two days after he had urged international resolve against Baghdad in his yearly State of the Union speech. Appearing at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bush said: "I am most grateful that the [Italian] prime minister [Silvio Berlusconi] signed a letter along with other leaders of European countries which clarified the issue that we're dealing with, and that is that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein is a clear threat to peace. It's a strong statement."

Bush, who also met yesterday with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, said he expects an intense round of diplomacy on Iraq to last weeks and not months before a definitive decision on what to do about Hussein is made.

Sitting next to Berlusconi in the Oval Office, Bush sought to allay European fears that a war in Iraq would not be followed up with a strong U.S. effort to bring democracy and stability to the country. "Should we require military action, shortly after our troops go in, we'll bring food and medicine and supplies to the Iraqi people. We will, of course, win militarily, if we have to, but we'll also want to make sure that we win the peace, as well," Bush said.

Bush is set to meet today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest foreign ally, at his Camp David retreat. The two will confer on Iraq ahead of a key address to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Powell is expected to present fresh intelligence on Iraq's weapons activities. U.S. officials hope the evidence will sway skeptical permanent Security Council members Russia, China, and France around to the U.S. position that force may be needed to disarm Iraq.

Still, U.S. officials clearly believe they have enough international support outside the UN to strike Iraq.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday that the United States will have access to 21 countries should Washington go to war in Iraq and that 20 other countries have said they will allow U.S. warplanes to fly through their airspace.

Armitage, who would not name the countries, declined to give further details about the level of international cooperation Washington is being promised.

Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has given conflicting signals that it might be willing to soften its position on Iraq.

Militarily, the most important allies are in the region itself. Basing for troops and equipment is key, so possible cooperation from Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Turkey is seen as vital.

Analysts tell RFE/RL that the European letter of support could have a strong impact on Iraqi diplomacy in the coming days, perhaps swaying countries now on the fence into the U.S. camp.

Raymond Tanter, a member of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff, is a professor at the University of Michigan and a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank. Tanter said he sees the letter from Europe to be "hugely significant in terms of furthering the American objective of securing the diplomatic backing for the 'coalition of the willing' to use force for the liberation of Iraq."

Tanter said he expects that war to be conducted without the explicit approval of the Security Council but with the backing of the coalition, much as NATO's 1999 war on Serbia was waged outside UN auspices.

Radek Sikorski is a former deputy foreign and defense minister of Poland. Now an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, Sikorski agrees with Tanter. He said the letter means that Bush, even without Security Council approval for military action, can now move forward on Iraq in the knowledge that he has significant European backing. "The signal is more political than military, because militarily the U.S. can do the job by itself. But I think America will need allies, particularly in the post-Saddam Iraq to stabilize the place, and then I think the European contribution will be valuable. But yes, essentially, the political import of this letter is to say: 'We are with the U.S., irrespective of what the Germans and the French say,'" Sikorski said.

And that's exactly the message Berlusconi conveyed in Washington. Addressing reporters with Bush, Berlusconi made it clear he remains one of Washington's staunchest European allies. Recalling Italy's liberation by the United States from Nazi occupation during World War II, he said Rome still owes its security to Washington. "We will never forget, not one day, that we owe our freedom, our democracy, our well-being to the United States of America. So for us, the United States is not just a friendly nation but a guarantor of our democracy and our freedom," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi added that he hopes growing unity around the U.S. position will pressure Hussein to come clean with UN weapons inspectors and disarm peacefully.

That same sentiment was expressed by Saudi Foreign Minister al-Faisal, who told reporters that he is still confident a diplomatic solution can be reached to avoid war. But this, he said, depends on Hussein's compliance with the UN inspectors. "Hopefully, the Iraqi administration will see its way through to work closer and more usefully with the inspectors to allow for a resolution of this without the need to resort to war," al-Faisal said.

Al-Faisal reportedly was due to discuss with Bush a possible plan to offer Hussein exile in order to avoid conflict. But after the talks, the Saudi foreign minister said that idea had not come up.

With Berlusconi, Bush welcomed the idea of exile for Hussein but added that any successor to the Iraqi leader would still have to disarm the country according to UN demands.

Reportedly, the Saudi plan would allow for a grace period after a second Security Council resolution before hostilities would begin. Diplomats would use that time to seek to persuade Hussein to accept exile, presumably with immunity from any form of prosecution.

After the talks with al-Faisal, however, U.S. officials said they did not have much faith in the exile plan.