HOUSTON -- The United States and its allies have decided to provoke a confrontation with Iraq tomorrow morning over the right to inspect Baghdad's most closely guarded ministry buildings, U.S. officials familiar with administration planning said yesterday.
The plan could lead to renewed bombing in Baghdad in coming days and the evacuation of United Nations personnel in Iraq. Some U.S. government officials said that the timing appeared calculated to give President Bush a boost during the Republican National Convention, which begins tomorrow, and could damage the credibility of the United Nations, which is carrying out weapons inspections in the name of the 15-member Security Council.
After a series of interagency meetings in Washington last week and consultations with British, French, and U.N. officials, Mr. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft,
approved a plan Thursday calling for U.N. inspectors now in Baghdad to demand access to the Ministry of Military Industrialization, government officials said. The chief of the U.N. special commission that supervises the inspections, Rolf Ekeus, was said to have left for Bahrain, where the teams are based.
This ministry, which was not bombed during the Persian Gulf war, supervised Iraq's once-secret program to develop weapons mass destruction under the management of President Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan.
If Iraqi officials bar inspectors from the building, as they have threatened to do to protect Iraqi national security and sovereignty, U.S. carrier-based aircraft would bomb the building in short order, the officials said, in a demonstration of U.S. resolve that would have an inescapable impact on the political gathering in Houston.
But the action would not necessarily end there. After an attack on the Military Industrialization Ministry, the United Nations would demand access to the Defense Ministry, the heart of Iraq's national security apparatus, which was relocated to the Petroleum Ministry after the 1991 allied bombing of Baghdad destroyed the original structure.
Again, any refusal by Iraq to allow access to this building would lead to its destruction by U.S. aircraft, officials said, adding that the confrontation and bombing could continue through a list of nine targets.
Other U.S. officials said the Defense and Military Industrialization Ministries were selected not because U.S. intelligence has identified specific documents hidden there but because these buildings are so important to Mr. Hussein's overall survival that he is certain to refuse access.
One official complained that "we are going to stage an incident" that relates less to the importance of any documents that might be found in the targeted buildings than to the conviction that the steps will provoke a confrontation that will serve as the pretext for military action and "to help get the president re-elected."
The White House refused yesterday to comment on the planned inspection or on what steps might be taken if the Iraqis do not cooperate. An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed any suggestion that the timing was related to the convention.
"I would remind you that this is a United Nations inspection team that is organized and implemented by the United Nations and the timing is that of the U.N.'s," he said.
Initially, Mr. Bush has selected a set of military options that pose the least risk to U.S. forces, the government official said, though the loss or capture of any U.S. pilots could deal Mr. Bush a damaging political blow.
The Bush administration telegraphed its planning last week when a senior official, speaking in a background session with reporters, said U.N. inspectors would demand access to Iraqi ministry buildings "within the proximate future."
One reporter was encouraged beforehand to ask the senior briefer about planning against Iraq, and the official replied that if the Iraqi leader "decides we can't inspect certain places," U.S. military forces in the region "can respond sharply."
"I think it might be useful to demonstrate that he had to obey the United Nations sanctions," the senior policy-maker told the reporters. He declined to provide further details. In subsequent days, other officials, troubled by the rush with which the White House asked the State Department and Pentagon to prepare for simultaneous relief and military operations in Somalia and Iraq during the Republican convention, provided additional details about the planned sequence of confrontation and the primary targets.
As in earlier military operations threatened against Iraq, the critical element of surprise would be assured by uncertainty as to the exact timing of the raids against the ministry buildings.
A key element of the looming Baghdad confrontation is the pretext under which U.N. inspectors will demand entry to military and Defense Ministry buildings under the cease-fire accord that ended the gulf war. The terms of the accord compelled Iraq to allow U.N. inspectors to search out and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as well as the laboratories, factories and archives that supported them.
But Iraq maintains that the protection of its national sovereignty demands that the inspections are not turned into espionage missions, the true goal of which is to gather information to topple Mr. Hussein by cracking the ring of security that has kept him alive and, thus far, immune to revolt and coup attempts.
A senior Iraqi official ruled out further inspections in ministry buildings in a statement this month that the White House regarded as a serious challenge both to the United Nations and to Mr. Bush's capacity to lead his coalition partners once against in military action.
While the cease-fire accord would allow U.N. inspectors to search Mr. Hussein's personal offices, "safe houses" and security centers for documents on his weapons programs, they have focused most of their attention on the actual armaments factories and depots where the weapons were manufactured and stored.