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U.S. Seeks Backing of Allies in Burgeoning Iraqi Conflict

By Peter Baker
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration once again marshaled its international allies to present a unified front against Iraq Tuesday as the Baghdad regime carried out its threat to block a U.S.-led weapons inspection team and reignited a crisis that has bedeviled Washington for months.

The renewed confrontation put the United States back in a hauntingly familiar position, laboring to hold together a coalition capable of persuading Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to back down. While holding out the threat of military force, the administration chose a cautious path Tuesday, relying on what it called "steady-as-she-goes diplomacy" to orchestrate a condemnation from the U.N. Security Council.

Iraq thwarted a scheduled search Tuesday by a U.N. weapons inspection team led by an American, one of several U.N. teams in the country, by refusing to provide escorts to facilitate entry into government-controlled sites. The standoff marked the first time an inspection has been prevented since November, when Saddam reversed an order that had resulted in the withdrawal of all weapons inspectors.

"They're up to their old tricks and we shouldn't allow them to pursue this," Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Patience is running out in a lot of Security Council capitals. The Iraqis are really pushing this to the brink."

A U.S.-drafted statement that could be voted on by the council as early as Wednesday "condemns in the strongest terms" the latest Iraqi defiance and calls it "unacceptable and a clear violation of the relevant resolutions" requiring unconditional access to all sites sought by U.N. inspectors.

Although the statement does not warn of any consequences, U.S. officials said the goal was to show that there are no serious fissures in the international coalition enforcing sanctions against Iraq and to give U.N. inspections chief Richard Butler fresh proof of that resolve when he travels to Baghdad this weekend on a previously scheduled visit.

The latest developments underscored a seemingly endless cycle of provocation-and-response that has ensnared President Clinton and U.S. allies, according to White House aides - as well as the dearth of attractive options to solve the impasse.

U.S. officials said they never considered last fall's crisis to be truly over, even after a Russian-brokered deal reducing tension in the region. Since then, two U.S. aircraft carrier groups and other military forces have remained in the Persian Gulf area as a warning to Iraq. Another incident like Tuesday's was inevitable as Iraq apparently probes for cracks in the U.S.-led coalition, Clinton aides said.

"The crisis may have disappeared in your minds," White House press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters Tuesday. "It has not changed one whit since October."

France, which had been reluctant to endorse a hard line against Iraq, Tuesday sided with Washington, issuing a statement calling on Iraqi officials "to immediately reconsider their decision." A Russian official told reporters in Moscow that "Russia is taking active steps to find a way out of the situation."

Iraq provoked the latest showdown when it refused to provide escorts for a U.N. team led by American Scott Ritter that was prepared to search sites outside Baghdad for evidence of restricted missile, nuclear, biological or chemical weapons technology. When no officials appeared at the appointed time, Ritter waited 30 minutes and then abandoned the day's mission. U.N. officials said they are unwilling to send out a team without their Iraqi counterparts for security reasons.

Iraqi officials have complained that the team contained too many Americans and Britons and accused Ritter, a former U.S. Marine captain, of being a spy. U.S. officials and Ritter have denied that and U.N. officials said Tuesday's 31-member team included specialists from 12 nations.

Although Ritter's team was thwarted, other inspectors were able to conduct their work in Baghdad Tuesday. Unlike last fall, U.N. officials allowed the other missions to proceed. When Iraq expelled American inspectors last October, the United Nations shut down other operations as well, arguing that Saddam could not determine the composition of inspection teams.