Bush faces crucial week in forging unity on Iraq

Monday speech, likely vote in Congress, and UN maneuvering will test support for US action.

National unity and international cooperation – the White House sets out this week to secure the first, and build up the second, in its drive to take on Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs.

Judging by the attention the Bush administration will give Iraq over the coming days – in everything from a presidential speech Monday night making a Tony Blair-style case against Hussein, to nearly nonstop negotiations at the United Nations for a new weapons inspections regime – the week will provide a critical test of whether the confrontation with Iraq ends up looking international or American.

The American people are the first on the list of those who want this conflict to be the world, and not just the US, against Hussein, according to a string of opinion surveys. The White House appears to understand this. But President Bush is also weighing the timetable and conditions he believes he needs to ensure that Saddam is no longer allowed to "lie and deceive," against an interest in the sometimes drawn-out process of building a world coalition.

While the president has shifted since last summer, when he suggested that neither new congressional authorization nor a return to the United Nations was necessary to legally take on Saddam, there is still clearly a limit to how long Mr. Bush will wait. And that is especially true when some of his close advisers remain skeptical of either weapons inspections or a broad international coalition.

"The White House position right now is, as much multilateralism as possible, but as much unilateralism as necessary," says Robert Lieber, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "There's a desire for international backing on this, but if that starts to look impossible or negotiations bog down, the administration will move ahead with whatever adhoc group of actors it can assemble."

The White House, for both domestic and international political reasons, wants as united a homefront as possible as it proceeds on Iraq. That explains several events slated for this week:

• In a speech delivered in Cincinnati Monday night, Bush will lay out Saddam Hussein's continuing effort to deceive the world on his amassed weapons, and will make the case that the Iraqi leader constitutes a threat to America – something Bush's critics say he has not yet proven.

• The Pentagon is promising press briefings this week detailing new Iraqi efforts to hide weapons and weapons-development programs before an eventual return of international weapons inspectors.

• Congress is expected to approve legislation this week authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. Some senators, both Democrats and Republicans, are holding out for taking action only after a UN resolution is approved, but momentum appears on the side of a vote this week.

The Senate's more guarded response on Iraq seems to mirror the American mood. A poll released last week by the respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland shows that while a strong majority supports an invasion of Iraq if it is carried out with multilateral support, only a small minority favors an invasion by America acting alone.

"The American public is not giving George Bush carte blanche," says Hurst Hannum, a UN expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. "People know it would improve our image with the rest of the world if Bush takes the time to work out an agreement with our international partners, and that's a concern for people."

The Bush administration's quest for a tough new Security Council resolution on Iraq got a boost from UN inspections chief Hans Blix. On Friday, he endorsed sending in his team under a new inspections mandate.

But that doesn't mean everything is smooth on the diplomatic front. The US demand that any UN resolution on Iraq's disarmament include reference to the "consequences" Saddam will face for not complying still faces firm opposition, notably from the French and the Russians.

Hints at how the stalemate might be resolved are surfacing. They begin with the US toning down its public insistence on "regime change" in Iraq – a shift already noted in Bush's most recent emphasis on "disarming" Saddam. Beyond that, analysts say, the Security Council powers are likely to find the language to bridge differences.

"It might take going to the level of Bush and [French President Jacques] Chirac, but there's good reason to think the diplomatic language will be found to deal with this," says Mr. Lieber.

Mr. Hannum expects a final resolution to include two key points: exacting new conditions to guarantee "complete and unfettered" inspections, and a relatively short time frame, perhaps 60 days, for inspections to be judged a success or at least advancing towards disarmament. That scenario does not include the "consequences" wording, but Hannum believes the US can drop that demand to its advantage. "I think they'll have to back down on wording that automatically authorizes the use of force," he says, "but that would give the administration room to say, 'We're willing to give peace a chance,' and thereby tremendously boost international support for this action."

Others agree the US could rally a broader international coalition that way, but are dubious the administration sees that prospect as worth the wait. "A lot of countries are still on the fence on this. They want to see which way the tide goes," says James Noyes, a former Pentagon official in the Nixon and Ford administrations and now a scholar at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. One key factor for them will be "how much emphasis the US will place on working with the rest of the world on this."

But he sees most of the administration thinking with a different emphasis. "The momentum is on the side of, 'Let's finish the job.' In the end, the key will be how strong the unilateralists are," he says. "They won't let this thing hang endlessly."

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