Iraq War Looms Despite UN Deadlock

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Bush: Rallying support for a possible war against Iraq

Listen to what President Bush is saying, and there can be little doubt that war in Iraq is now inevitable. "If [Saddam Hussein] had any intention of disarming, he would have disarmed," the President told USA Today in comments published Friday. "We will disarm him now," he added. That blunt statement of intent, and Wednesday's speech declaring his war aims suggested Friday morning that the President's mind was made up. That message was made clear Friday afternoon, when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the U.S. would only be satisfied when Saddam was out of power — a significant shift in policy, and something that no amount of UN arms inspectors could accomplish.

It looks like war is near. What's less clear: whether a U.S.-led attack on Iraq will be authorized by the United Nations. Iraq's decision to comply with the UN inspectors' demand to destroy its al-Samoud 2 missiles has strengthened the resolve of those at the Security Council arguing that inspections be given more time. The U.S., Britain and Spain are lobbying for a resolution proclaiming Iraq in "material breach" of Resolution 1441, opening the way to war. But France, Germany, Russia and China are backing a counter proposal to give inspectors more time to pursue peaceful disarmament. Bad-tempered behind-closed-doors exchanges in the Council had yielded little progress, and much had hinged on this weekend's report from chief inspector Dr. Hans Blix. The Blix report notes Iraq's compliance with its disarmament obligations had been "very limited." Commenting on recent signs of progress, he adds, "It is hard to understand why a number of measures which are now being taken, could not have been initiated earlier." But Blix on Friday welcomed the missile announcement, citing it as an instance of "real disarmament." That suggestion was immediately rebuffed by Washington and London, where it was dismissed as gamesmanship by Saddam. Still, Blix's comments suggest that his report will be yet another mixed bag, offering ammunition that will reinforce the arguments of both camps at the Security Council.

Although Bush administration officials believe a second Security Council resolution is not a necessary precondition for going to war, politically it remains extremely desirable. Washington's most committed allies in Europe — Britain's Tony Blair, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi — are all swimming against the tide of domestic opinion in order to support Bush, and all have pressed for Washington to seek UN endorsement. Even in the U.S., opinion polls find that a majority of Americans would prefer UN endorsement for a war, and the number of registered voters telling pollsters they'd reelect President Bush in 2004 fell below 50 percent this week.

The battle at the Security Council, though, may have gone beyond simple debate and persuasion. By signaling that President Bush has made up his mind to go to war, the administration may be hoping to force some of the skeptics to follow Turkey's lead and make their peace with a war they oppose. Turkey's parliament is due to vote Saturday to allow the U.S. to station more than 60,000 troops on its soil, after the government extracted promises of a multibillion dollar aid-and-loan package from Washington and agreement on Turkey deploying its own forces inside northern Iraq to suppress the nationalist ambitions of the Iraqi Kurds.

The Turkish example is also a reminder that the Bush administration need not confine its coalition to "the willing" — or at least the eager — but may be in the process of extending it to the "willing for a price." The leverage of U.S. economic muscle, aid and trade agreements will be used to convince the likes of Mexico, Chile, Angola, Guinea and Cameroon to vote with Washington at the Security Council. And France may be doing the same to keep particularly the African nations in its corner.

But Turkey is not yet a done deal. Ironically, perhaps, Turkey is one of only a handful of secular democracies in the Islamic world — and an exemplar, therefore, of President Bush's vision of a post-Saddam Iraq. And it's not yet clear which way its parliament will vote on an issue that pits Turkey's key strategic ally, the U.S., squarely against the 90 percent of the country's electorate that opposes a war.

The problem facing Washington as it seeks to assemble a majority on the Council is that most of the international community remains opposed to war. By dealing with countries one-on-one, the U.S. is often able to bring to bear enough leverage to bring doubters into its column. But signs of resistance anywhere along the line tend to reinforce reluctance elsewhere to go along with a move to war within the two-week deadline for discussion set by the U.S. when it introduced its resolution this week.

Out in the operational theater, however, temperatures will soon begin to rise with the onset of the sweltering spring. And the Iraqi military has reportedly begun redeploying some of its better fighting units from the north, probably to reinforce the defenses of Baghdad and Tikrit. From a military point of view, if this war must be fought in the waning weeks of winter, it must be launched sooner rather than later. And listening to President Bush, it's not hard to deduce that operational concerns may soon eclipse diplomatic ones in determining Iraq's immediate future.