U.S. rejects prolonged inspections and says time of decision is nearing
'Matter of weeks' on Iraq
Steven R. Weisman/NYT The New York Times |
Monday, January 20, 2003
WASHINGTON Top officials of the Bush administration Sunday rejected calls for a prolonged inspections process in Iraq, asserting that the moment of decision was fast approaching on whether Saddam Hussein's regime had complied with disarmament demands from the UN Security Council.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the decision on whether or not Iraq is cooperating with the United Nations, generally regarded as a possible precursor to war, would be made "in a matter of weeks, not in months or years," adding: "That judgment call will just have to be made."
Rumsfeld's emphasis on urgency, echoing the comments of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, seemed aimed at rebutting the talk in recent days that the inspections process should be allowed to play out in the next year.
Last week, Hans Blix, the senior UN weapons inspector, said that inspections should continue into March, and President Jacques Chirac of France spoke of waiting until the fall. These comments spread alarm among Bush advisers, who fear that long delays will weaken the coalition of nations willing to use force against Iraq.
The administration officials, in a round of Sunday television interviews, also stepped up their calls for Saddam to abdicate to avoid war. But they avoided commenting specifically on reports that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other nations in the region were trying to arrange for his ouster, exile or a coup by Iraqi generals.
The comments of administration officials came as Powell prepared for a critical meeting of foreign ministers of the Security Council at the United Nations on Monday. Powell was due to fly to New York on Sunday evening for meetings with the foreign ministers of China, France and Mexico.
The secretary said that another topic of discussions of these meetings would be whether to bring North Korea's nuclear weapons programs before the Security Council, where its defiance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty might well bring calls for sanctions.
Much of the discussion on Iraq is now focused on a report being prepared by Blix for presentation to the Security Council on Jan. 27. Though the administration has cautioned that the report will not likely produce a "smoking gun" proving the existence of Iraq's weapons programs, it will almost certain reinforce the contention that Iraq has not cooperated with the council's demand that it come clean.
Rumsfeld, repeating the administration's point on this subject, said the test of Saddam's intentions did not lie in whether or not a weapon was found. "I think the test is not that," he said, "The test is, is Saddam cooperating or is he not cooperating. That is what ought to be measured. That's what the UN asked for."
Rice said that the Jan. 27 presentation should not be considered a final deadline but rather the start of the final phase of determining whether Saddam was cooperating or not. She did not specify how long this final phase would last, but Rumsfeld's comment that it would only be a matter of weeks echoed the comments that officials have been making in private.
The likelihood of Saddam leaving voluntarily was dismissed by Rice and others. "I just think that it is unlikely that this man is going to come down in any other way than to be forced," Rice said.
Powell and others have begun increasing their emphasis on the need to interview scientists without interference as a major cause for accusing Saddam of rejecting the disarmament demands in Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted last autumn by a unanimous council vote under American urging.
An official said the team of inspectors working in Iraq had recently focused on a list of 25 scientists whom they want to interview in or outside Iraq. Any obstruction by Iraq is likely to be considered a major cause for action.
The UN inspectors had heard a report that a relative of one scientist on the list had been killed under suspicious circumstances, but this could not be confirmed, an official said.
Some officials of the Bush administration say that they have lost control of the public relations aspects of the inspection process, creating a popular perception that it is the job of the inspectors working alone to find direct evidence of Iraq's nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs.
But in the view of the administration, the UN teams were never likely to find anything without the cooperation of the Iraqi authorities.
Still, one such piece of evidence did come last week, when the inspectors found 12 empty chemical warheads at an ammunition storage depot in southern Iraq. Aides to Bush immediately labeled them as evidence that Iraq had failed to disclose all it was obliged to in its report of its inventory late last year.
But there are many in the administration who lament that the discovery of the empty warheads presented a misleading model of what the inspectors are trying to do.
"The question is whether Iraq is cooperating," an official said. "That's the question that we have to ask ourselves."
Another official said: "This should not be about smoking guns. We may never find a smoking gun, though it sure would help. Rather than a site-by-site investigation, you need to look at this as an investigation to test certain principles - whether Iraq is truly cooperating or not."