US negotiates its line in Iraqi sand

A week of tense talks begins at the UN, as the US pushes for inspection deadlines and tough consequences.

No more wiggle room.

The United States moves into an intense – and historic – week of negotiations on Iraq at the United Nations determined to deny Saddam Hussein the time or ambiguity to do what he's done before: evade checks on his weapons programs.

Sixteen times in the past decade the UN Security Council has passed resolutions on Iraq's weapons programs. But in just the last few days, there's been a global shift in support of the US position. And this time around, the US will be pushing for two elements missing in the past: a deadline for admitting inspectors and concrete consequences if Iraq doesn't comply.

'"Let's be very realistic: He's said 'yes' to inspections before," National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on television Sunday. "So this time, anything that we do has to be different."

Secretary of State Colin Powell was at the United Nations again Monday, meeting with various foreign ministers and diplomats, and reiterating President Bush's exhortation last week that it must act fast and decisively with Iraq. The US wants a UN resolution by the end of the week, and a vote in the coming weeks.

Over the weekend, Mr. Powell indicated where the US plans to draw lines in the sand. Any Security Council action on Iraq must include three elements, he says: a declaration of Mr. Hussein's past flouting of demands on weapons inspections and destruction; a firm deadline on a new requirement for compliance with the UN; and wording indicating the consequences Iraq faces if it does not comply.

"We've been down this road before. If we're going to pass another resolution where we're giving Iraq another chance, Iraq has to understand there are going to be consequences," says a US official at the UN. "If you open to more than one resolution, it gives the Iraqis time to employ stalling tactics and negotiate away their obligations."

The point detailing consequences – the war Iraq faces – is likely to be the most difficult to hammer out, administration sources say, since many countries at this stage to be falling in line with UN action in the hope of cutting off the need for military action.

One "possibility," according to Ms. Rice, would be wording that frees up UN members to use force on their own rather than calling for joint UN action.

A key goal of Washington will be to fend off efforts to avoid an ultimatum for Baghdad: the French have proposed a "two-step" process that would first demand the return of inspectors, then address the issue of non-compliance. Others are talking about dividing the issues into two separate resolutions.

The US opposes any dilution, for it might allow Iraq's Saddam Hussein enough wiggle room to engage in the "cat-and-mouse game" they say he's played since the Gulf War.

In an opinion column in Sunday's Washington Post James Baker, who was secretary of state during the Gulf War, condemned the two-step approach as opening the door for Hussein to once again wiggle out of action. Calling the two-step approach "absolutely not acceptable," Mr. Baker said it "would give Saddam Hussein two bites at the apple, first by stonewalling on compliance and then by fighting the enforcement resolution."

Such arguments are likely to raise again the timing question, however, with some key players apt to ask why action must be authorized to take place within weeks – especially when Bush in his speech said Hussein was perhaps a year away from procuring a nuclear weapon.

Still, UN negotiations get under way as the US, like a director awaiting audience reaction to a new movie, smiles at the global response coming in so far to its ultimatum on Iraq. "Not just the public responses we're seeing but the cable traffic coming in since [Bush's speech] Thursday are showing a lot of positive response, because we're doing this through the UN, because we're doing it multilaterally," says a State Department official.

The approach the US is taking this week, working intensely with its international partners, allies, and fellow permanent members of the Security Council, is seen in Washington as a triumph for Secretary Powell, who had been sidelined for weeks from the hawkish discussions in and around the administration leading up to Bush's speech.

Powell's approach – that the world can be brought along on a tough response to Iraq, and that it has to be given the importance of the international community to post-conflict dealings with Iraq – reflects the kind of American engagement much of the international community prefers to see. Countries that are loath to see America acting alone are thus falling in behind the US.

Key examples are coming out of Iraq's neighborhood in the Middle East. Veering sharply from months of categoric rejection of any military action against Iraq, Saudi Arabia is signaling not only a willingness to accept UN action eventually to grant the US use of its Saudi air bases as staging grounds for an attack. On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in an interview with CNN that if the UN authorized military force, "everybody is obliged to follow through." The comment came in response to a question about Saudi Arabia's willingness to have US bases on its territory used as part of a war with Iraq.

Arab countries, increasingly considering US military action as inevitable, are setting themselves up to deal with the consequences: They don't want to be on the outs with either the US or home audiences. So they will indicate support for friend and patron America if it moves within the UN, will indicate they still oppose use of force, and tell their constituencies they did what they could to avoid a war they inevitably could not stop.

Saudi Arabia had begun sending signals of a shift in its stance even before Bush's speech. Earlier this month, for example, the Saudis allowed US and British fighter planes based on its territory to provide air cover for a US-led bombing mission against Iraq.

"We're seeing a variety of positive signals coming out of Saudi Arabia and other capitals," says the State Department official. "All of this is being closely watched and considered as we move ahead in the way the president has laid out."

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