Bush Sets the War Clock Ticking


By Julian Borger in Washington and Ian Traynor in Moscow

September 13, 2002

A diplomatic scramble began yesterday to avoid a war in Iraq after President George Bush laid down an ultimatum at the United Nations, warning that "action will be unavoidable" unless Saddam Hussein complies with a litany of past UN resolutions.

In his address to the general assembly, Mr Bush offered the hope of a peaceful resolution brokered by the security council and did not set a deadline for Iraqi compliance, but diplomats at the UN were in no doubt that the speech set the clock ticking.

In tandem with its diplomatic offensive, the US has steadily upped the pace of its military preparations. Headquarters staff are moving out to the Gulf where thousands of tonnes of equipment are being stockpiled. In order to fight in the winter, when desert temperatures are bearable, a decision will have to be made by December.

However, Mr Bush signalled that he was prepared to work with the security council to hammer out new resolutions that would give Saddam a last chance to avoid invasion by implementing standing UN resolutions on weapons inspections, human rights, the repatriation of prisoners of war and the state sponsorship of terrorism. He said it was an opportunity for the UN to salvage its credibility.

"Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" Mr Bush asked the hushed chamber. "We will work with the UN security council for the necessary resolutions. But the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The security council resolutions will be enforced - the just demands of peace and security will be met - or action will be unavoidable."

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, praised Mr Bush for his "powerful and effective speech", adding: "There's no doubt about the urgency of the situation, and the responsibility resting with the United Nations." The French president, Jacques Chirac has already backed a UN ultimatum and hinted he might support US-led military action if Saddam fails to respond. But in a briefing to French MPs he voiced anxiety about the impact of war on the global economy and anti-western sentiment.

The US and British see Russia - a traditional ally and business partner of Iraq - as the pivotal member of the security council's "permanent five" when it comes to drawing up a joint resolution.

Richard Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the UN, said last night: "The key to this is not the UN, it's not the security council, it's one nation - Russia - and one man, Vladimir Putin, and we'll find out soon enough what the Bush-Putin relationship is worth."

The US and Russian defence and foreign ministers are to meet next week in Washington in what will be a key test of Russian attitudes. Georgy Mamedov, the deputy foreign minister, said US envoys were also expected in Moscow in the next fortnight for talks on the crisis. The US state department hawk, under-secretary John Bolton, is in Moscow to discuss the issue.

Sergei and Igor Ivanov, the Russian defence and foreign ministers, are to meet the Pentagon chief, Donald Rumsfeld, and the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in Washington next week. That session will be followed by Tony Blair's mission to Moscow to see President Putin next month.

While Russian elite and public opinion is opposed to a war on Baghdad, Mr Putin has a record of bowing to the Americans. One of his foreign policy advisers, Mikhail Margelov, in an unusual statement, accused Saddam of a rule of terror and of perhaps being responsible for exporting terrorism.

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Aldouri, described Mr Bush's speech as "the longest series of fabrications" and an attempt to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his denunciation of Baghdad, Mr Bush presented no new evidence to underpin allegations that it is developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He focused instead on the long stream of UN resolutions in the past 11 years on disarmament and arms inspections that he accused Saddam of flouting. But he also accused the Iraqi government of ignoring UN resolutions on the repression of minorities, the return of prisoners of war including a missing American airman, Scott Speicher, that some in the US administration believe is being held captive.

The president said Saddam had also defied the UN's will by continuing to sponsor terrorism, and claimed that al-Qaida members had sought haven in Iraq. Most reports suggest, however, that the al-Qaida presence is limited to northern Iraq, which is not under Baghdad's control.

If Baghdad refused to comply, Mr Bush warned "a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power".

He was vague on whether Saddam could guarantee his political survival by compliance. The US administration's policy is officially to pursue "regime change", but Mr Bush hinted that this could be a relatively gentle process, involving UN-sponsored political reforms, if Baghdad bowed to the demands of the international community.

Yet he left little doubt in address that the alternative would be an invasion. His words were given weight by the news that US central command would be moving its headquarters to Qatar in November, at least temporarily. Rear Admiral Stephen Baker, a former navy commander in the Gulf, said US forces would prefer to fight before March when the temperatures started to become intolerable, particularly if troops had to wear chemical or biological protection suits.

"It will take us about one to two months to put the forces in depending on the force size," the rear admiral said.

"Listening to what the president said, I'd say either we have inspectors in or we're going to war in the next three months."

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