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Wednesday, February 18, 1998

Clinton Bangs the Drums for War

Deborah Orin

WASHINGTON - President Clinton yesterday warned the American people to get ready for military action against Iraq unless Saddam Hussein grants full access to U.N. weapons inspectors - "and soon."
"Force can never be the first answer, but sometimes it's the only answer," Clinton said in a Pentagon speech to prepare Americans for possible airstrikes - and possible U.S. casualties.

"I know that the people we may call upon in uniform are ready. The American people have to be ready as well,"said the president, who also noted that no military action is "risk-free."

Clinton conceded airstrikes won't destroy all of Saddam's poison gas, germ and nuclear weapons, but said the goal is to leave Saddam "significantly worse off" - and if one strike isn't enough, there could be more.

The president said Saddam's weapons pose a world threat that can't be ignored - or else, "Someday, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."

The president set no specific deadline for Iraq other than his warning that Saddam must comply "soon" or face the consequences.

"Let there be no doubt we are prepared to act - but Saddam Hussein could end this crisis tomorrow simply by letting the weapons inspectors complete their mission," Clinton added.

There was a flurry of 11th-hour diplomacy as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan set out on his own last-ditch mission to Baghdad, arriving Friday, in hopes of averting military action - a mission that has Clinton aides nervous.

U.S. officials are clearly uneasy about Annan, since his mission to Baghdad is being warmly welcomed by Iraq and backed by Pope John Paul II, Russia and China - all of whom oppose military action.

Iraq appealed to Annan to come to Baghdad with "an open mind and free will" and promised a "serious and legitimate effort" to reach a deal, but didn't offer any concessions.

Clinton's speech seemed designed to warn Annan against free-lancing or cutting a fuzzy deal that fudges the issue and leaves wiggle room that would let Iraq shield specific sites from U.N. weapons inspectors.

"Iraq must agree - and soon - to free, full, unfettered access to these sites anywhere in the country. There can be no dilution or diminishment of the integrity of the inspection system," Clinton declared.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson last night warned that the Clinton administration won't necessarily agree to any deal that Annan cuts in Baghdad, saying: "We reserve the right to an alternate conclusion."

In 1990, Iraq occupied Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War in which a U.S.-led coalition defeated Iraq. Under the agreement ending that war, Iraq was to destroy all weapons of mass destruction and let U.N. inspectors certify Iraq's compliance.

But Clinton contended Iraq has used "lies, stonewalling, obstacle after obstacle after obstacle" to block U.N. inspectors, and said Saddam must be stopped now before the Iraqi leader concludes the world "has lost its will."

Clinton scoffed that Iraq's "presidential sites" are a symbol of sovereignty, noting one palace is 2,600 acres and another site is 40,000 acres - compared to just 18 acres for the White House complex.

"We're not talking about a few rooms here with delicate personal matters involved," Clinton said.

Most lawmakers in Congress quickly backed Clinton's line but some Republicans said he should get even tougher and target Saddam's Republican Guards in a bid to undermine the regime.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War pilot, said: "Weakening and ultimately destroying Saddam's hold on power is the only course that is certain to prevent this lawless dictator from developing and using weapons of mass destruction."