Unity on extending inspections, but little else

UN is likely to set mid-February deadline, time the US will use to rally support and build up troop levels.

The United Nations Security Council, anxious to preserve some semblance of unity on Iraq, is likely to guarantee Wednesday that weapons inspections continue for a few more weeks.

But behind the tacit consensus remain the fundamental rifts dividing the US 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 UN's likely move to set a mid-February date for the next inspections report - which the US won't oppose - serves some interests on both sides. For the Bush administration, it allows the US military more time to build up its forces in the Gulf region. The Pentagon had planned to have 100,000 troops in place by now, but so far only 80,000 have been dispatched.

Secondly, going along with additional weeks of inspections helps the US 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 US 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 US 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.

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 US will remain within the UN framework and not unilaterally declare war. But it also extends the period during which Iraq can undertake the "proactive" cooperation with inspectors that UN 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 US intentions, as the US is of theirs," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The result of these "mutual suspicions," Cirincione says, "is that the unity achieved last October is wearing very thin."

AS critical as the US 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.

With British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest international ally, set to meet with Mr. Bush Friday at Camp David, the president is unlikely to take steps before then that would make it look as if Mr. Blair is simply following a US 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 US and its "allies and partners" over ultimate goals. Everybody agrees that Mr. Hussein should be disarmed and his threats to the region's stability stopped, but beyond that there is little consensus, says Hurst Hannum, an expert on the UN at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

"While the Europeans agree with the limited goal [of disarming and containing Hussein], they believe the US has all kinds of other goals that have not been made clear" involving regime change, Iraq's oil, and "establishing Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East."

The murkiness of these other goals "is what makes our European allies nervous," Mr. Hannum says. But he adds that "not all the European motives are benign. The French are anxious to thwart any steps that would greatly enhance US power in the Middle East, he says. Other observers say the French and Russians are guarding their own stakes in Iraq's petroleum and other industries.

Some experts see a downside for the US in continuing the inspections process, if the decision is ultimately that war is necessary. John Reppert, a former US weapons inspections official, says the hundreds of UN inspectors in Iraq mean the Security Council "has a real lever ... over the US timetable. "You can't launch military operations with those people on the ground, [so] we have to figure out some way to cause them to be brought out and we don't have the trigger yet."

But Mr. Reppert, now an international relations expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says he is not worried about any long-term rupture between the US and its European allies. He believes that once a war is over weapons will be discovered in Iraq, and the Europeans will "give quiet apology."

Staff writer Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this report

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