- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

The Bush administration said yesterday that nearly two dozen countries have pledged to provide at least some support for a U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq far higher than previous estimates.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that more than 20 nations have agreed to give allied forces full or partial basing, transit or overflight rights in an Iraq war. Nine nations so far have said their troops will participate.

Echoing top U.S. and British officials, Mr. Armitage told the panel that the diplomatic window had narrowed sharply for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to heed U.N. demands to disarm.

"Should a military activity be required, there's a lot more going on than one suggests," he said.

In Berlin, however, legal experts in parliament argued yesterday that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's pledge to let the United States use German bases in a war with Iraq need not apply if Washington acts unilaterally.

While angering Washington by staunchly ruling out a German role in military action against Iraq, Mr. Schroeder said in November that the U.S. military could count on using crucial bases in Germany and German airspace.

But a parliamentary study made a potentially significant distinction, concluding that accords on the stationing of U.S. troops in Germany guarantee base and overflight rights only for exercises or if NATO acts jointly. A copy of the study was obtained by the Associated Press.

President Bush continued a furious round of diplomacy in preparation for a final push to secure international backing for his hard line on Iraq, confirming yesterday that the timetable for a decision was "weeks, not months."

Mr. Bush met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri in the space of six hours, with Iraq figuring prominently in each talk.

He will huddle with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest ally in the run-up to the Iraqi showdown, at Camp David today, in what is widely expected to be a final summit ahead of a decision on whether and when to use force.

After his talk with Mr. Berlusconi, Mr. Bush said he would welcome an exile plan under which Saddam voluntarily relinquished power.

"Should he choose to leave the country along with a lot of the other henchmen who have tortured the Iraqi people, we would welcome that, of course," Mr. Bush said.

But the president hastened to add that the departure of Saddam and his inner circle would not automatically avert war.

"No matter how Mr. Saddam is dealt with, the goal of disarming Iraq still stays the same, regardless of who is in charge of the government," he said.

The president's promise to act within weeks, not months came hours after The Washington Times reported he had decided on such a timetable.

Mr. Bush and senior administration officials said they were buoyed by an open letter signed by Mr. Berlusconi, Mr. Blair and six other European leaders who offered a strong defense of the U.S. stand against Iraq.

"The transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security," the seven prime ministers and one president said in the letter. Mr. Bush called the joint letter a "strong statement of solidarity."

The letter was seen as a diplomatic coup for Mr. Blair, who has feuded in recent days with France and Germany about Iraq policy, defense and the future of the European Union.

The timing and tone of the letter, which ran in a dozen European newspapers, were widely seen as a snub to Germany and France, leaders of the international opposition to U.S. action in Iraq while arms inspectors from the United Nations proceed with their work.

Neither Mr. Schroeder nor French President Jacques Chirac was invited to sign the letter, and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, complained that the letter undercut efforts to forge a joint European position on Iraq.

"The way in which the initiative on the issue of Iraq was expressed does not contribute to the common approach to the problem," he told reporters in Athens.

The growing belief that a military clash is inevitable has coincided with an increasing number of countries saying they are ready to provide U.S. forces with at least limited support.

The Irish parliament yesterday turned back an attempt to deny U.S. forces access rights to Shannon International Airport, and Lithuania's Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that it has extended the period U.S. planes can use its bases and airspace.

In the Senate hearing, Mr. Armitage would not name the countries that have pledged resources and support to the American effort, but the overall numbers are much higher than any previous administration figures.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John D. Negroponte told the panel that all but one of the 15 Security Council members Syria are already convinced that Iraq has not done enough to cooperate with U.N. weapons teams or meet U.N. demands to disarm, although the council is far from united on what to do next.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate committee, expressed skepticism that U.N. teams could ever uncover Saddam's forbidden weapons programs given the level of Iraqi cooperation to date.

But lawmakers from both parties questioned what they said was a rush to war while the inspections were just getting under way.

"I think we have to give the process a chance to work," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Republican, suggested that the inspection teams could keep Iraq contained for a year or more.

But Mr. Armitage said Saddam has defied more than a dozen U.N. disarmament demands since the end of the 1991 Gulf war.

"My point of view is that the American people have already waited 12 years and several months," he said. "And if you're not going to get the cooperation, then another year only increases the danger for us."

• Bill Sammon and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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