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Bush: Decide on Iraq today

As the president and his allies make a last-ditch effort to salvage the U.N. resolution, Bush works on a war address to the nation.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2003
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LAJES AIRE BASE, Azores -- President Bush and his staunchest allies Sunday gave the U.N. Security Council until the end of today to support the use of military force against Iraq or they will go to war without it.

"Tomorrow is the day that we will determine whether or not diplomacy can work," Bush said in an appearance with prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Jose Durao Barroso of Portugal after a one-hour meeting here on Iraq. "We concluded that tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world."

Bush and his diplomatic partners deliberately left ambiguous whether they would call for a vote today on a new resolution they have proposed authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq.

"The president said what he wanted to say," White House spokesman Sean McCormack said in response to requests for clarification. "Win, lose or withdraw, the diplomatic process ends tomorrow."

Though the leaders pledged to seek compromise with U.N. foes through the night and all day today, they offered little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough. Even if a compromise plan somehow secured approval of a U.S.-Britain-Spain resolution at the U.N., it would delay military action only a week or so, officials said.

Generally the three leaders appeared Sunday to be going through the motions of diplomacy in an effort to place the blame on the United Nations if the council fails to approve a resolution. Their options now appear to be limited to losing a vote on a resolution they have jointly sponsored to authorize the use of force, or withdrawing the measure, a stunning diplomatic defeat, and declaring they do not need United Nations approval to wage war.

A defeat at the Security Council could make any military action a violation of the U.N. Charter, as Secretary General Kofi Annan warned last week. No vote would create a legal ambiguity -- the best Bush can hope to obtain right now, diplomats said, unless votes change by the end of today.

In Baghdad, Hussein also acted as though war was imminent, and vowed to give as good as he gets.

"When the enemy starts a large-scale battle, he must realize that the battle between us will be open wherever there is sky, land and water in the entire world," he said, according to the official Iraqi news agency.

After their brief meeting, Bush and the other leaders walked immediately to a set of podiums to read statements clearly prepared before their discussion. Bush announced the ultimatum, denounced Hussein's "history of mass murder" and vowed that "Iraq's liberation would be the beginning, not the end, or our commitment to its people."

Blair outlined a post-Hussein Iraq whose territorial integrity will be preserved, saying "we will support a representative government that unites Iraq on the democratic basis of human rights and the rule of law . . . . We will help Iraq rebuild." Aznar said they had "renewed our Atlantic commitment on our common values and principles, in favor of democracy, freedom and the rule of law."

Although the session was billed as a news conference, each of the four leaders took only one question. After a brief dinner, Bush left for home just four hours after he arrived, an hour earlier than scheduled.

Karen Hughes, Bush's top message adviser, and Michael Gerson, chief White House speech writer, accompanied the president on the five-hour flight to this lush, green, island archipelago that is an autonomous Portuguese territory. Administration officials have said that the White House is drafting a major address to the nation, for delivery perhaps as early as tonight, in which Bush will declare that diplomatic efforts have been exhausted and Hussein has lost his final chance to disarm.

Although most U.S. and European citizens have already left Iraq, the speech will be a signal to diplomats, international workers and foreign journalists still inside the country that war could start at any moment. Sunday, Germany became the latest government to withdraw from Iraq, calling on all its nationals to leave the country "immediately."

The United States has massed about 225,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region, most of them lining the Iraqi border with Kuwait and ready to move. More than 30,000 British troops are also expected to participate. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday morning, said that "we are approaching the point where further delay helps no one but Saddam Hussein." Additional delay, Cheney said, would give Hussein time to "position his forces to attack" and to "try to mount terrorist attacks" against the United States.

The leaders did everything they could to tamp down talk that Sunday's session, held in the officers' club of the air base here, overlooking placid Atlantic waters, was a "war council." But it had the air of the Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin divided up Berlin and talked of post-war Germany. A communique issued Sunday afternoon, as the leaders had a quick meal and then raced to their respective planes, committed them to a "unified Iraq with its territorial integrity respected."

The communique continued: "All the Iraqi people -- its rich mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Chaldeans and all others -- should enjoy freedom, prosperity and equality in a united country."

In interviews, administration officials have said that task will be equal to rebuilding Germany or Japan in 1945, replete with a new constitution, new currencies, new institutions and heavy aid. But the plans, a senior official told the New York Times, are still just concepts, and while American officials have promised not to maintain military rule over Iraq longer than needed, they have set no timetables.

Bush sought to quell concerns that the United States plans to assume unilateral control over Iraq. The conquering forces, he said, would "push as fast as possible for an Iraqi interim authority," a terminology comparable to the initial, U.N.-backed government installed in Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai.

Blair said the United Nations would administer Iraq's oil wealth. The joint statement also said there would be a "swift" end to U.N. sanctions. The leaders indicated the United Nations would have a defined post-war role in humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

But the very fact that the leaders were discussing post-Hussein Iraq as an imminent reality was only one bit of evidence that the decision to go to war had already been made.

In three weeks of intense diplomacy since the resolution was introduced, Bush and Blair failed to win the nine of 15 security council votes necessary for passage, as one nation after another resisted a March 17 deadline as too short, and refused to authorize an invasion before first setting additional disarmament tests for Iraq by U.N. inspectors. France, Russia and Germany have been most prominent in opposing the use of force.

Sunday, Bush and other senior members of his administration directed much of their ire at France, which has threatened to veto the measure. Bush, on March 6, was asked at a news conference whether he would demand a vote on the resolution even if it appeared doomed to failure. He replied, "You bet," and said it was time for council members to "show their cards."

Asked Sunday whether the vote would be canceled, Bush said with obvious irritation, "I was the guy that said they ought to vote. One country voted -- showed their cards, I believe -- it's an old Texas expression -- show your cards, when you're playing poker. France showed their cards . . . . They said they are going to veto anything that held Hussein to account. So cards have been played."

French President Jacques Chirac said Sunday morning that he was willing to shorten to 30 days a deadline of 120 days his government had suggested several weeks ago for continued inspections. But French officials have said their nonnegotiable demand is that they will not support an "automatic" invasion and they insist the council would have to meet again if Iraq failed "benchmark" tests.

Citing the French "track record" over a number of years, Cheney said "they have consistently opposed attempts to hold Saddam Hussein responsible."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, on NBC's Meet the Press, said he did not think the 30-day proposal was "that big a concession," adding, "I don't know exactly what President Chirac is proposing. All I know is that when the United Kingdom came forward with an adjustment to the resolution that's on the table last week," extending the deadline for Iraqi to prove it had decided to turn its weapons of mass destruction over to inspectors, "the instant response from the French government was, 'We'll veto it. We'll veto anything that leads to serious consequences for Iraqi noncompliance.' "

It was unclear whether the three resolution sponsors intend to call for a Security Council meeting today, or will make their decision on the resolution after informal consultations with other members. But a collision appeared likely, as the United Nations spokesman announced Sunday that France, along with Russia and Germany, had called for a 3 p.m. meeting to discuss their own proposal to extend inspections.

"Let me say something about the U.N.," Bush said. "It's a very important organization. . . . "We hope tomorrow the U.N. will do its job," he said. "If not, all of us need to step back and try to figure out how to make the U.N. work better as we head into the 21st Century. Perhaps one way will be, if we use military force, in the post-Saddam Iraq the U.N. will definitely need to have a role. And that way it can begin to get its legs, legs of responsibility back."

-- Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

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