- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) — The seemingly intractable confrontation with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction topped the agenda Thursday of President George W. Bush, who held two separate meetings with leaders from Italy and Saudi Arabia and also worked the telephone to contact others, the White House said.

The calls and meetings kicked off what spokesman Ari Fleischer announced Wednesday was a "final" diplomatic push to procure Iraq's voluntary surrender of weapons of mass destruction and avert war.

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"What you are seeing now is a very active window of diplomacy involving the president's personal time, making a series of phone calls, which will continue; a series of personal meetings, which will continue; meetings and phone calls by the secretary of state, by others in the government," Fleischer said.

"It won't continue forever; it will continue for a finite period of time, as the president has said. Following that, I think this is then when the president will have to make a judgment about whether (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm on his own, or whether he will have to make the decision to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein."

In his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night Bush formalized earlier, more spontaneous comments that time was running out for Saddam to completely cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and proactively prove it not longer has the chemical and biological weapons it was known to have possessed in the late 1990s.

Bush Thursday morning telephoned Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso to thank him for his support of the U.S. position on Iraq and to promise continued consultations, the White House said.

That call was followed by one to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who is opposed to military action to force disarmament. The president again promised to consult with Persson on the matter.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi later provided a high point for the president. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office before talks with Bush, Berlusconi declared his support for Washington.

Diplomatic sources say Berlusconi plans to travel to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Bush's behest.

"In Italy, I already said it, I have the opportunity to say that we have always been the faithful ally country of United States, we are close friends of the United States, also in this case," he said.

He said that since the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear terrorists were looking to create "a terrible disaster," and to do so would need chemical and biological weapons "we know are available" in Iraq.

If the world stands united, he said, then "Saddam Hussein will have no other option than to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and give up its WMD (weapons of mass destruction).

"I'm here today to help my friend President Bush to convince everybody that this is in the interest of everybody," Berlusconi said.

The meeting, followed by a working lunch, was the first of two back-to-back discussions on Iraq that Bush was holding. Later in the afternoon he held talks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal.

Berlusconi was an early supporter of the U.S. position on Iraq and a signatory of a letter to European and American newspapers Thursday by eight European leaders that backed the United States in the confrontation with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The Saudi official's visit, meanwhile, came amid reports Arab leaders were exploring the idea of effecting Saddam's voluntary exile from Baghdad to avoid the region being plunged into a new Gulf War. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said for the first time that the United States would be prepared to aid efforts to find a haven for Saddam and members of his inner circle if he stepped down as Iraqi leader.

The White House Wednesday said Bush's diplomatic initiative was a final phase before a decision on war. The president said on Thursday the diplomatic campaign would be a matter of "weeks, not months."

The statement underlined his remarks in his State of the Union address in which he said he was prepared to act militarily — with or without U.N. Security Council sanction — to forcibly disarm Iraq to protect American national security as well as world security.

Powell, in the face of widespread international opposition to military action, next Wednesday is to present the Security Council with additional information and intelligence to buttress the U.S. contention that Iraq possesses contraband weapons and is a threat given past aggression and alleged links to terrorists.

The strongest opposition in Europe comes from two traditional U.S. allies — France and Germany — who with Luxembourg and Belgium have managed to block for the time being NATO reaching a decision of providing some level of support to a U.S.-led military campaign.

The letter appearing in European newspapers on Thursday was a strong public counter to opposition by France and Germany to possible war and vow to block U.S. military actions.

"Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity and far-sightedness, Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: Nazism and communism," the leaders wrote. "Thanks, too, to the continued cooperation between Europe and the United States we have managed to guarantee peace and freedom on our continent.

"The trans-Atlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security."

The leaders said that in "in today's world, more than ever before, it is vital that we preserve that unity and cohesion" between Europe and the United States. "Our governments have a common responsibility to face this threat. Failure to do so would be nothing less than negligent to our own citizens and to the wider world."

In addition to Berlusconi, the letter was signed by the leaders of Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Denmark.

The effort to forge a united front of the United States' European supporters was underlined by the breakfast meeting Berlusconi had with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar en route to Washington, according to diplomatic sources in the U.S. capital. It brought praise from the White House.

"The president this morning would like to express his appreciation to the eight European leaders who have penned an op-ed that appeared in newspapers throughout Europe this morning, expressing their support for the policies of the United States," Fleischer said.

"The president is very proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with such important leaders, and he knows there are many others, in addition to these, who are supportive of America's policies."

Bush put it more simply; "I'm most grateful," he said.

Washington has said that it will lead a "coalition of the willing" to disarm Iraq if need be.

On Monday, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix reported on the first two months of renewed weapons inspections in Iraq. Iraq, he said, was not cooperating fully and had not accounted for previously known weapons of mass destruction — such as anthrax, VX gas and Mustard gas — or gaps in information.

France and Germany would like the inspectors to stay on the ground until they have definitive answers to the questions about Iraq's disarmament. The United States and Britain argue Iraq is playing a hide-and-seek game with the world and it is up to Baghdad to prove it does not have proscribed weapons, rather than inspectors to prove it does.

More than 130,000 U.S. troops are either in or have been ordered to the Gulf region in preparation for a possible war Bush says he is still "hopeful" can be avoided.

"As the president said on Tuesday night, it would take just one vial, one canister, one crate to bring a day of horror to our nation unlike any we have ever known," Vice President Dick Cheney said Thursday at political conference in Washington. "That is why confronting the threat posed by Iraq is not a distraction from the war on terror, it is absolutely crucial to winning the war on terror."

Bush said Thursday that if war comes, soon following the troops into Iraq would be food and medical supplies for the Iraqi people.

The United States, he said, wanted "to make sure we win the peace as well" as the war.

Bush will follow up Thursday's meetings with a session with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David, the presidential retreat in nearby Maryland.

Blair, a staunch ally, has come under increasing pressure and denunciation in Britain over his support of possible military action against Iraq. He has made it clear that he will support military action whether or not the U.N. authorizes it.

In other developments Thursday, Powell met with Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham, who made clear Canada's joining of any military coalition to disarm Iraq depended on its sanction by the U.N. Security Council.

"Canada has made it clear that if there's a United Nations authorization, the prime minister has said — we, of course, have always supported that multilateral approach — we would be there," Graham told reporters at the State Department.

Powell added he believed "Canada is committed to the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, and we all hope it can be done with the full support of the international community."

"And we'll stay in close touch in the weeks ahead to make sure that we have a complete understanding of each other's views," he said.

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