WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Sunday that the Bush administration wants the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq to be the "first step" toward solving the crisis over the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Powell's comments to the British Broadcasting Corp. appear to contradict statements by Vice President Dick Cheney, who last week rejected the possibility of restarting U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq and called instead for a U.S. military strike against Baghdad.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan Sunday downplayed Powell's apparent contradiction of Cheney. As President Bush prepared to return to Washington after a vacation in Texas, McClellan said Powell's comments echoed the administration's call for "unfettered" inspections of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "It's what we've been saying all along," McClellan said.
But McClellan added that inspections alone may not be enough. "Inspections are no guarantee if at the same time the regime in Iraq continues to try to hide weapons of mass destruction," McClellan said. He added that the burden is on Iraq to prove it's not amassing such weapons.
The dueling remarks, however, fueled a fresh round of criticism that the Bush team isn't speaking with a unified voice on Iraq and has done a poor job of selling its military plans to allies and the U.S. public.
"There is a disconnect here and I don't understand it," said Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under the first President Bush, on NBC's Meet the Press.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, agreed. "Instead of making the case unambiguously with a single group of people singing from the same song sheet, they're singing at least, at a minimum, different lyrics to the same music, and they're undermining their case," Holbrooke told Fox News Sunday.
No one in the administration, including Powell, argues that Saddam isn't a menace; that Iraq, the Middle East and the world would not be better off without him; or that diplomacy alone can defuse the problem. But Bush's top aides are sharply split over just how immediate the Iraqi threat is and how quickly Saddam must be eliminated.
Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice argue that because Saddam already has large stocks of chemical and biological weapons, he could give them to al Qaida or another terrorist group at any time.
Powell, top CIA officials and many of the nation's uniformed military leaders, however, say there's no reason to rush to war with Iraq, especially with U.S. forces still tied down in Afghanistan, many of America' s allies unwilling to participate and anti-Saddam Iraqi dissidents divided and unprepared to fight.
A senior administration official, who spoke Sunday on the condition that he not be identified, said "Powell wants to get rid of Saddam as much as anyone else does. But he wants to do it in the best way, not the worst way. That means with a clear explanation of why we had to act when we did, with international support and with a plan for what comes after."
In the BBC interview, which is scheduled to air on Sept. 8, Powell said, "the president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return" to assess Saddam's nuclear, biological and chemical arms programs. Iraq forced the inspectors out in 1998.
"Iraq has been in violation of these many U.N. resolutions for most of the last 11 or so years," Powell added. "So, as a first step, let's see what the inspectors find, send them back in."
Last week, though, Cheney argued that "a return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of (Saddam's) compliance with U.N. resolutions."
In two speeches, the vice president offered the Bush administration's most forceful case yet for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, urging swift action to head off the danger that Saddam will attack first. He said there is "no doubt" that Saddam is preparing to use weapons of mass destruction against "our friends, against our allies and against us."
The most recent CIA estimate suggests that it will be at least five years before Iraq has a usable nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it—unless Saddam succeeds in buying an existing nuclear warhead, perhaps from some neglected corner of the former Soviet Union.
Intelligence experts are skeptical that the dictator, who they reckon prizes power for himself and his sons more than anything, would risk everything by giving Osama bin Laden a chemical or biological weapon to use against the United States or Israel.
"Does (Saddam) have terrible political judgment? Yes," said a senior administration official, who also spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity. "Is he suicidal? No; not unless he's convinced that he's doomed anyway, which oddly enough seems to be the message that some people are determined to send him."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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