WEAPONS INSPECTIONS U.N.'s extending probe buys time for U.S. and Iraq

The United Nations is likely to set a mid-February date for the next report.
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations Security Council, anxious to preserve some semblance of unity on Iraq, is likely to guarantee today that weapons inspections continue for a few more weeks.
But behind the tacit consensus remain the fundamental rifts dividing the United States and Britain on one side and France, Germany, Russia and China on the other. Most notable: whether war will probably be necessary to disarm Iraq -- and whether the ultimate goal is the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
In the short run, the United Nations' likely move to set a mid-February date for the next inspections report -- which the United States won't oppose -- serves some interests on both sides. For the Bush administration, it allows the U.S. military more time to build up its forces in the Persian Gulf region. The Pentagon had planned to have 100,000 troops in place by now, but so far only 80,000 have been dispatched.
Second, going along with additional weeks of inspections helps the United States calm the heated accusations by a number of countries that the White House is bent on waging war, while also increasing the chances of the United States' eventually enlisting the participation of more allies if it decides war is necessary.
Finally, putting war off until mid- or late February would allow the United States to avoid fighting an Islamic country during the hajj, or holy pilgrimage, that up to 2 million Muslims will undertake to Saudi Arabia, Iraq's neighbor, between Feb. 10 and 13.
Advantages to U.N.
For Security Council members critical of American "impatience" with the inspections process, setting a subsequent report date accomplishes two goals. It ensures that, at least until then, the United States will remain within the U.N. framework and not unilaterally declare war. But it also extends the period during which Iraq can undertake the "proactive" cooperation with inspectors that U.N. weapons inspections chief Hans Blix said Monday is lacking.
The Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese "are suspicious of Saddam Hussein's intentions, but they are also suspicious of U.S. intentions, as the U.S. is of theirs," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The result of these "mutual suspicions," Cirincione said, "is that the unity achieved last October is wearing very thin."
As critical as the United States is of the inspections' results so far, accepting a report date next month that assures they will continue allows President Bush to put some meat on his claim that he continues to view war as a last, unpalatable resort.
Delicate maneuvers
With British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest international ally, set to meet with Bush on Friday at Camp David, the president is unlikely to take steps before then that would make it look as if Blair is simply following a U.S. lead. Blair, notably, is facing mounting opposition at home to his close association with Bush on the Iraq issue.
The Bush administration also has to walk a fine line at home. Domestically, polls show falling support for war, and especially for any war that would be fought without the support of America's international partners. A new poll published this week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland shows that two-thirds of Americans favor giving the inspections more time.
Still, simply setting a date for another inspections report will not close the gap between the United States and its "allies and partners" over ultimate goals. Everybody agrees that Saddam should be disarmed and his threats to the region's stability stopped, but beyond that there is little consensus, said Hurst Hannum, an expert on the United Nations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

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