WASHINGTON -- President Bush, modifying his previous refusal to ease sanctions on Iraq, said yesterday the United States is considering a plan that would allow the sale of some of Iraq's oil to finance the purchase of food and medicine to prevent the suffering of "innocent women and children" in that country.
The White House is still waiting to be convinced, however, that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does not already have the financial resources to take care of his people.
Administration officials also indicated yesterday that the United States would not launch an immediate military strike against Iraq if the country failed to meet tomorrow's United Nations deadline for disclosing the full extent of its secret nuclear weapons program.
While not ruling out the threat of resumed allied bombing of Iraq, the officials said the current situation was not the same as the missed deadline last winter for withdrawal from Kuwait that touched off the Persian Gulf war one day later.
"This isn't like Jan. 15," one official said. "If they don't comply, we'll sit down and figure out what we're going to do. We don't even feel compelled to react immediately."
The two issues are largely unrelated except that they both reflect the president's frustration at what he considers to be Mr. Hussein's duplicity.
"It's very clear that Saddam Hussein has not complied with the U.N. resolutions," Mr. Bush said, referring to the cease-fire terms to which Mr. Hussein had agreed, including the dismantling of his nuclear arsenal and war reparations to Kuwait.
"We'll see what we can do," he said. "We're not trying to hurt any individuals there."
U.S. officials are considering several plans for implementing TC U.N. provision to provide humanitarian relief to Iraq by freeing resources such as oil reserves from the economic sanctions. They want to make sure the proceeds actually provide food and other help to those in need.
Before any such action is approved, however, Mr. Hussein must first provide the United Nations with an accounting of his financial situation to prove that he is not simply holding out on his starving people to protect his personal wealth or to divert resources to his military forces.
Any easing of the sanctions, even for humanitarian purposes, would mark a retreat by Mr. Bush from his earlier insistence that the economic stranglehold on Iraq would remain in place until Mr. Hussein complied with all the cease-fire terms.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged yesterday that the sanctions had not achieved their principal goal of driving Mr. Hussein from power and that the sanctions were being blamed for great suffering endured by the Iraqi people.
President Bush said earlier this month that he was "deadly serious" about enforcing U.N. demands that Iraq provide a full accounting of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and permit inspectors access to any site they wished to see. As recently as last Thursday, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said that the United States and its allies "always have the ultimate sanction -- military capability -- if we are called upon to use it."
But at the Pentagon yesterday, spokesman Pete Williams suggested that immediate military action was not inevitable after tomorrow's deadline for Iraq to make a full disclosure of its nuclear weapons program.
He and other officials said an unspecified amount of time would be needed for international inspection teams to verify additional information that might surface tomorrow. "We will look very carefully at whatever they provide us by [tomorrow], and we expect the [U.N.] special commission and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] team will continue their inspections to see whether or not Iraq has, in fact, complied with the resolution," he said.
"Obviously, we're not going to take whatever they provide us by [tomorrow] at face value," he said. "I don't think we'll consider the matter closed by then."
Asked to compare tomorrow's deadline, set by the U.N. Security Council on July 12, to the Jan. 15 date that embroiled Iraq in a devastating war, Mr. Williams replied: "We were much more forthcoming about what the consequences would be about that [January] deadline. This is a different issue."