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U.S. Will Not Suggest Force To Deal With Iraqi Defiance

By John M. Goshko
The Washington Post
UNITED NATIONS

The United States will not respond with force to Iraq's latest defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors but will assess Baghdad's overall record of cooperation in the coming days before deciding whether to revive the threat of air strikes, U.S. diplomatic sources said Monday.

The sources said the strategy had been decided upon by the Clinton administration in the wake of Iraq's refusal on Friday to turn over documents about its biological, chemical and missile programs requested by the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), which is charged with eliminating prohibited Iraqi weapons systems.

Baghdad's action came less than a week after President Clinton put on hold the use of force in exchange for Iraqi assurances of renewed cooperation with UNSCOM. But the president warned that the threat of airstrikes could be brought back into play if Iraq fails to comply fully with U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for its disarmament.

"We are not going to get bogged down at this time in a dispute about these documents," one U.S. source said. "We want to see first what UNSCOM gets from Iraq in the way of cooperation. We're not sure how long we might wait, as there is a fine line to be walked in putting up with Iraqi challenges. But we think that for the time being forbearance is the wiser course."

In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright hinted at this course in less explicit terms. Asked by reporters how much time the United States would give Iraq, she said it is "not a matter of a deadline. It's a matter of coming forward with what is necessary to show they are cooperating."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen noted that the United States has enough planes and missiles massed in the Persian Gulf region to strike Iraq at any time. He said that Iraq's willingness to hand over the documents sought by UNSCOM would be an important factor in ensuring Iraqi disarmament.

But, Cohen added, "I think a lot of questions have to be asked and answered before there can be any resolution as to whether or not they are - quote - cooperating. I think that we have to look at the full spectrum of their level of cooperation."

These comments, and the more detailed background remarks of other officials, sounded similar to the approach taken by Washington in August when President Saddam Hussein's government triggered the most recent confrontation with the United Nations by suspending most of its cooperation with UNSCOM.

Unlike earlier incidents when the United States instantly threatened military retaliation, Washington on that occasion refused to discuss airstrikes. It was not until Oct. 30, when Iraq escalated the confrontation by severing its last links with UNSCOM, that Clinton dusted off the threat of force and ordered a U.S. military buildup in the gulf.

Some officials acknowledged that the mixed signals sent by the U.S. response in August had raised questions about the administration's resolve. But, as one source put it Monday, "It also paid off in terms of convincing other countries that we weren't rushing to bomb Iraq injudiciously, and when we were ready to move, that gave us a lot more backing internationally than we had earlier."

In the meantime, Iraq showed no signs of backing down from its refusal to produce the documents.