NEW YORK, Dec 1: Following the success of the US military campaign in Afghanistan President Bush intended to use the momentum to force Iraq to open its borders to United Nations inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction.
In separate interviews with the New York Times US officials said that the Bush administration was weighing its options, which included involving the building up of opposition groups to President Saddam Hussein, but they maintained that such an initiative would take time to develop because “there isn’t a ready-made opposition” now.
In an interview, with NYT, Richard L. Armitage, deputy secretary of state, suggested that military action against Iraq was not imminent and would come, if it did, at a “place and time of our choosing.”
In a separate interview, Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, told the paper “there isn’t any sense of timing” about when to force the inspection issue with Iraq. “Right now, getting Al Qaeda is more important,” she said, referring to the campaign to destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
“The fact is that we have Iraq on the radar screen,” Ms Rice said. “It was dangerous before Sept 11 and it’s dangerous now. But we are really very focused right now on phase I, on Afghanistan, and worrying about Al Qaeda cells wherever they might be.”
The remarks from the senior officials were part of what has been a steady drumbeat of bellicose comments toward Iraq this week, including remarks by Mr Bush that have cheered many conservatives and worried some European and Arab allies.
A number of European leaders this week called on Mr Bush not to pursue a precipitate military course against Iraq, the paper said.
Mr Armitage told the paper that the administration was sensitive to concerns among the European and Arab allies that forcing a military confrontation with Iraq could sunder the anti- terror coalition and possibly harm efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Other Arab leaders have also warned that a wider war in the Middle East will incite the imagery of a western assault on Muslim countries.
The Times noted that Mr Bush’s comments on Monday that “Mr Hussein would find out the cost of continuing to refuse United Nations inspections” reintroduced an issue that had been dormant for some time. It also raised questions whether he was broadening the American military mandate in the anti-terror campaign to address the long-festering conflict with Iraq. But there was also speculation in diplomatic circles that he was trying to assuage influential figures in both the Republican and Democratic parties who have been calling for an aggressive policy aimed at toppling the Iraqi leader.
Mr Armitage said in the Times interview the president was engaged in a calculated effort to resurrect the issue of Mr Hussein’s compliance with United Nations resolutions that require him to submit to inspections.
“The United States is on, thus far, a roll in Afghanistan,” Mr Armitage said, adding that “the president has put together a very mighty coalition” that he is intent on holding together. On the strength of the successes so far, he said: “the president made a statement” that was intended as a “signal to Saddam Hussein how he can lessen the pressure, and that is, ‘Let the weapons inspectors back in.’”
Asked why the administration had decided to raise an issue that had lain largely dormant in the United Nations Security Council for several years, Mr Armitage said: “I don’t think there is any question that an Iraq with weapons of mass destruction is a threat to its neighbours and ultimately to ourselves, and so we will do what we need to do to obviate that threat.”
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Thursday that reports that “something is on the verge of happening” militarily against Iraq “has no particular underpinning substance to it.”
Speaking to reporters at the state department, he added, “A senior administration official told the paper that there is no new intelligence indicating a higher level of threat from Mr Hussein, but that “we know that he is the only modern leader who has used weapons of mass destruction, both against his own people and Iran.”
That official said Mr Bush’s Iraq policy was focused on three elements: carry out a “smart sanctions” regime to address concerns for the people of Iraq while stanching the flow of dangerous technology to Baghdad; “looking at how we might use military power more effectively”; and “looking at options involving opposition.”