WASHINGTON -- President Clinton chose this moment to attack Iraq to exploit a brief window between the end of a futile series of United Nations inspections and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, officials said yesterday.
The timing also was influenced by the need for tactical surprise, officials said, and by an apparent desire to prevent the kind of last-minute diplomatic interference that caused Clinton to abort a planned series of strikes against Iraq a month ago.
Coming on the eve of what was supposed to be a House debate leading to his impeachment, the attack generated strong suspicion yesterday that Clinton was acting to delay congressional action and thus preserve his job.
Former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, while saying that military action against Iraq is "the right thing to do" and in fact overdue, charged that "the whole process of getting here after wasting six months smells to high heaven."
Charges of political motivation were also leveled in August after Clinton ordered missile strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombing of two U.S. Embassies in Africa.
Though it is hard for administration officials to prove that the impeachment issue was not a factor this time, they argued strenuously that the timing was due to a sequence of events over which they had little control.
Inspectors finished Tuesday
Inspectors on Tuesday completed the last of a series of actual and attempted visits to suspected Iraqi weapons sites begun more than three weeks ago, intended to test the extent of Iraq's willingness to cooperate with the U.N. quest for disarmament.
Having concluded that Iraq would not cooperate, Richard Butler, the chief weapons inspector, completed and turned in his report the secretary-general Tuesday, as Clinton was returning to Washington from a four-day trip to Israel and Gaza to bolster the Middle East peace process.
Butler's timing left a three- or four-day period between Clinton's departure from the Middle East and the start of Ramadan this weekend.
"[Butler] set up this thing so that between the time that the president came back from Gaza and Ramadan, he would be able to respond militarily," said a Senate Democratic aide familiar with contacts between Senate leaders and Butler.
By acting swiftly, Clinton averted a repetition of the last-minute flurry of diplomacy by Iraq's allies on the U.N. Security Council that led to Iraqi promises and derailed military action last month.
'Iraq's failure to comply'
"The timing here is generated by Iraq's failure to comply," said James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman.
A month ago, when Clinton halted a planned series of cruise-missile attacks in response to Saddam Hussein's promise compliance, the president said he was giving Hussein one last chance, and next time military strikes would come without warning.
The additional time given then for Iraqi compliance allowed the United States to persuade other members of the U.N. Security Council that it had given Baghdad every opportunity to avoid being attacked. But the U.S. warning was misunderstood or insufficiently feared in Baghdad, where Hussein acted as though Clinton was bluffing.
Iraq continued to conceal the secrets of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, leading Butler to conclude this week that his teams could not fulfill their responsibility.
Inspectors were denied documents, barred from Baath Party headquarters, blocked at a base used by anti-Iranian mujahedeen forces, and denied access to another site because it was the weekly Muslim holy day. Iraqis also stripped rooms of potentially incriminating material before inspectors arrived.
A 7-year pattern
These were the latest in a seven-year Iraqi pattern of trying to hide and preserve the ingredients and know-how for a dangerous arsenal. With it, experts believe, Hussein could rebuild or develop weapons that pose a devastating threat to Western interests and U.S. forces and allies throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and Middle East.
Before the latest series of inspections, U.N. inspectors were concerned that Iraq had chemical munitions left over from its war with Iran and large quantities of germ weaponry.
And though the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iraq cooperated with its inspectors, a former U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, charges that Baghdad has the components for up to four atomic bombs and lacks only the fissionablle material to create nuclear weapons.
Said Steven Dolley of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, "They could have the potential to put nuclear weapons together in short order if they obtain fissile material."
Pub Date: 12/17/98