U.S. is weighing options on how to oust Saddam

Michael R. Gordon and David E. Sanger

The New York Times
Wednesday, February 13, 2002

WASHINGTON Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the Bush administration is considering a variety of options to topple President Saddam Hussein, amid indications that President George W. Bush and his top advisers are close to settling on a plan.

While taking an unusually tough tone toward Baghdad, Powell was careful to draw a distinction Tuesday between Iraq on one hand and Iran and North Korea on the other, three countries that Bush has lumped together as an "axis of evil" because of their quest for weapons of mass destruction.

"With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there is no plan to start a war with these nations," Powell said in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee as the administration approached a decision about how to dislodge Saddam.

But in discussing Iraq, Powell delivered a stern message, one that was deliberately crafted to sound stronger than the testimony he had given previously.

"With respect to Iraq, it has long been, for several years now, a policy of the United States government that regime change would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people," Powell said. "And we are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about."

Senior officials said there was a consensus within the administration that Saddam must be overthrown and that plans to do so were being drawn up. But there is no agreement as to how precisely that should be done or how long the United States should be prepared to wait for action.

Next month, Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to visit a number of nations that border Iraq, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. Cheney also plans to visit Britain, Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, all of which are nations whose political support as well as bases might be useful for any campaign against Iraq. At the Pentagon, officials have been drawing up plans for an Iraq campaign. The Iraqi National Congress, as the Iraqi opposition is known, has received a much warmer reception from the Bush administration since Bush's State of the Union speech in January, though the administration still has not agreed to provide its members with military training. During a recent meeting at the White House, Iraqi opposition officials were told by a senior administration official that Bush had decided that Saddam needed to be replaced. "We were told that the president has made up his mind: Saddam has got to go," an Iraqi opposition official recalled. At the hearing Tuesday, Powell stressed that Bush had not made any final decisions and that military action was not imminent. General Tommy Franks, who heads the U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the campaign in Afghanistan and which would run any campaign against Iraq, said Tuesday that a military plan had not yet been settled.

"I do not think I am at a point where a decision has been made about where to go next, leave alone the precision of how we will be going about doing this," Franks said at the end of a visit to Kuwait.

A senior administration official said the Pentagon still needed several months to wind up the fighting in Afghanistan and make preparations for a potential military campaign in Iraq.

Among the difficult military issues that officials are wrestling with is the possibility that Saddam would respond to an attack by using weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces and possibly Israel; the extent to which U.S. ground forces would be needed, and how Iraq would be administered after Saddam was toppled. The Bush administration also needs to lay the diplomatic foundation. The British government is still wary of an Iraq campaign, the Turks are fearful it could lead to an independent Kurdistan, Israel is apprehensive that it might be targeted by Iraq's missiles and other states in the region are skittish about a major U.S. military operation so nearby.

Several senior administration officials have begun to talk privately about a two-track approach to deposing Saddam that would balance the military and diplomatic planning.

The first steps, which could take five months or more, involve working through the United Nations to develop tighter but more focused sanctions against Iraq and demand that it allow nuclear inspectors unfettered access to the country. But senior administration officials say they fully expect that such an effort would fail, an outcome that would lay the base for a military campaign, one in which the United States would both encourage internal rebellions against the Iraqi leader's rule and use U.S. military power. "If we put smart sanctions in place in May, then it gets harder for Iraq to make the case that it should not allow weapons inspectors," a senior official said. "But we know that it is only matter of time before the weapons inspections get stopped and we have yet another bit of proof that Saddam will never give up."

Discussing the diplomatic approach, the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said after a recent meeting with Powell that he expected that when the UN Security Council meets in May to renew economic sanctions against Iraq, the United States and British could issue an "ultimatum" to Saddam to let in the weapons inspectors. Straw said he hoped that Russian pressure would persuade Iraq to cooperate, but unlike hard-liners in the Bush administration, he did not say what action should be taken if Iraq refused to comply.

While strong economic interests and decades of diplomacy bind Baghdad to Moscow, a senior administration official said Russia might acquiesce in an attempt to remove Saddam. In an interview Monday with The Wall Street Journal, President Vladimir Putin did not rule out military action as a last option under a UN mandate.

"Such problems can't be solved by one country alone," Putin said. "The military option is far from being the sole, universal or best solution."

Powell's appearance Tuesday was significant because he has long been considered the most cautious member of the administration when it comes to confronting Iraq.

By making statements in a congressional hearing Tuesday and making them in a more strongly worded fashion than in similar testimony he gave last week, the secretary of state demonstrated his loyalty to the president and thus gave himself an opportunity to influence the outcome as discussion continued within the administration. But his comments also indicated that the deliberations over Iraq have a new sense of urgency.

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