WASHINGTON—President Bush and some of his top aides, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have exaggerated the degree of allied support for a war in Iraq, according to senior officials in the military and the Bush administration.
These officials, rankled by what they charge is a tendency by Rumsfeld and others to gloss over unpleasant realities, say few nations in Europe or the Middle East are ready to support an attack against Iraq unless the United Nations Security Council explicitly authorizes the use of force.
In the latest sign that international support for the administration's plans is soft, key ally Turkey said Friday that it would participate in a campaign against Iraq only if the world body blessed it.
"An operation not based on international law cannot be accepted," a Turkish presidential spokesman said after a meeting of top Turkish civilian, military and intelligence officials in Ankara.
The backing of Turkey, which borders Iraq's north, is vital because it hosts air bases at Incirlik and elsewhere that would be necessary to conduct a major air campaign against Iraq and protect the ethnic Kurdish population in northern Iraq from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's retaliation.
"Turkey is the key," a senior administration official said.
However, Turkey, which also has a large Kurdish population, is concerned that Iraq's Kurds would try to form their own mini-state and that a war with another Muslim country could aggravate tensions between Islamists and secularists in Turkey and damage the Turkish economy.
Turkey is not alone: No country near Iraq has agreed to serve as a launching pad for a U.S. strike without U.N. authorization, the senior official said. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity.
As they have tried to persuade Congress to give Bush broad war-making authority, Rumsfeld and other officials have sought to create the impression that there is widespread international support for the Iraq endeavor. That, said one top official, "is at best premature and at worst deceptive."
The defense secretary told a House of Representatives committee Sept. 18 that Bush aides "know for a fact" that the United States would not be fighting Iraq alone if it failed to obtain a U.N. resolution. "There are any number of countries that have already announced their support," he said.
Bush said Thursday that if the United Nations and Iraq didn't eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, "the United States in deliberate fashion will lead a coalition to take away the world's worst weapons from one of the world's worst leaders."
Several officials said that while those statements were technically true, there was no coalition yet. Diplomats said privately that only staunch ally Great Britain and Bulgaria—a member of the U.N. Security Council that wants to join the U.S.-led NATO alliance—had said they were willing to act without United Nations cover.
A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that Rumsfeld's words stood for themselves.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday, "We're confident that, one way or the other, we have to deal with this danger (from Iraq) and that we'll be able to." He declined to comment on the Turkish announcement.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has been working intensively to persuade other U.N. Security Council members to back a tough resolution that would force Iraq to accept strict new rules for inspections or face a U.S.-led invasion. He has run into stiff resistance, particularly from France and Russia, both of which hold veto power on the council.
Along with those countries, the United States presumably would need an OK to use military bases in Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. In Qatar, the United States has been extending a runway to accommodate more combat planes, and some war planners hope to persuade Jordan to let U.S. and British special forces attack suspected missile bases and weapons facilities in western Iraq from its territory.
None of those countries has told Washington it will be forthcoming without U.N. support, the officials said.
One senior military officer called Rumsfeld's comments "misleading."
"`Fine,' `locked in,' `positive,' `concrete' those words aren't being used over here," another Pentagon officer said.
Top policy-makers are gambling that their claims of support eventually will prove true, the officer said, adding, "That gamble is probably 75 to 80 percent going to turn their way."
Some analysts said that if the confrontation with Iraq came to war, most countries would choose to join in rather than risk displeasing the United States or missing out on the spoils.
"You will have regimes which, if we force the issue, will support us," said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative center for national-security studies. But those countries want diplomatic cover, he said.
Some allies also want assurances on other issues, Cordesman said. Turkey, for example, wants debt relief for its teetering economy along with promises that there will be no independent Kurdish state in Iraq. Russia wants a free hand to pursue alleged terrorists in neighboring Georgia, Iraq to pay roughly $8 billion in debt and Washington to lift Cold War-era trade restrictions.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.