President Bush, pronouncing himself "plenty fed up" with Iraq's attempts to evade U.N.-ordered elimination of its weapons of mass destruction, said Wednesday that he is prepared to send U.S. military aircraft to the region to escort U.N. inspection teams.
At the same time, Bush said the United States already has agreed to send an undisclosed number of Patriot missiles back to Saudi Arabia to protect the desert kingdom from Iraq's Scud missiles in case the face-off with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime reignites the Persian Gulf War.
Bush, speaking to reporters at an impromptu news conference deep inside the Grand Canyon, said the United States and its wartime allies are determined to enforce the U.N. Security Council's orders to destroy all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, by military means if necessary. But the President stressed: "I don't think it will come to that.
"He's a very difficult fellow," the President said of Hussein. But Bush added: "He's not going to question our resolve on this. He knows better than to take on the United States of America."
Abdul Amir Anbari, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the U.S. plans as "a tempest in an empty cup of tea" and a "cheap ego trip" against Iraq. He said there is "no justification" for a Western show of force.
But U.S. and U.N. officials say Baghdad has tried repeatedly to frustrate the work of U.N. teams that were sent to the Gulf region to locate and destroy missiles, poison gas, biological weapons and facilities that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
In June, Iraqi guards fired shots over the heads of U.N. investigators to prevent them from entering a suspected nuclear research facility. Earlier this month, Iraq refused to permit a U.N. team to use its own helicopter for an inspection flight over Iraqi territory.
In the past, Hussein has backed down after the United States and its allies have shown their determination to go ahead with the inspections. He already has softened his refusal to permit U.N. helicopter flights, saying the inspectors can use their own aircraft if they abide by certain conditions.
But the Administration refuses to accept any restrictions, and Iraq's continued pattern of defiance has clearly frayed the patience of the Administration.
"The point is that they are establishing conditions and they are in no position to do that," a Pentagon official said. "There is a general impression that the Iraqis haven't gotten the message that this isn't a negotiation."
National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said the Administration is considering the possibility of dispatching helicopters and support personnel to the Gulf region to transport and protect the U.N. inspectors. The aircraft would augment U.S. military planes that are still in the region.
But the White House stressed in a formal statement: "There has been no decision to deploy these forces."
A senior Administration official emphasized late Wednesday that the focus of the plan is to provide U.S. attack helicopters to fly "protective cover" for helicopters carrying the U.N. inspection teams. The official noted that fixed-wing warplanes could fly more "cover missions" but suggested there might be no need to deploy them from the United States.
"We have substantial assets in the region," he said, referring to aircraft based in Turkey and on aircraft carriers in and near the Persian Gulf.
In any case, the developments marked the most tense confrontation between Washington and Baghdad in the six months since the signing of the cease-fire agreement.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States already has discussed various contingency plans with other members of the Security Council, and "we are all united in the view that these are mandatory resolutions" that must be enforced.
He said that Washington has adequate Security Council authorization to take whatever action the Administration decides on.
Iraq is obligated, under terms of the resolution that ended the war, to cooperate with inspectors from the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. A senior State Department official said the inspectors cannot do their job unless they can conduct surprise inspections, and they cannot do that unless they control their own transportation.
Asked how long the Administration will wait before taking more forceful action, the official said: "Not too long."
The comments by Bush and Scowcroft came in a surreal setting as the President perched on a rocky outcropping hundreds of feet below the rim of the mile-deep Grand Canyon.
Bush, apparently seeking to quell concern that his Administration is again moving toward war, insisted that the United States is "not in a threatening mode." Instead, he said, "This is what you call prudent planning."
But a senior Administration official conceded separately that the move marked "an escalation of pressure."
Other officials said privately that the objective is to secure Hussein's compliance with threatening rhetoric alone, without actually launching military action. But some of the impact was dissipated because the White House and the Pentagon were out of sync for much of the day.
Officials traveling with Bush initially said the aircraft reinforcements were on their way. The Pentagon, however, insisted that no forces had been moved, although there were plans to act if Iraq continued to defy the U.N. orders. Late in the day, the White House toned down its statements to conform to the Pentagon version.
A high-ranking Administration official blamed what he called the "haphazard" Administration response on the fact that news of the military planning had leaked before the White House was prepared to make it public.
On Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans lined up to support the threat. Most lawmakers spoke at a time when they believed that Bush had already dispatched warplanes to the region, but there were few expressions of concern.
"Sooner or later, we have got to have a face-off with Saddam," said Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.). "If he blinks, we ought to let him have it with both fists: one to the solar plexus followed by a swift uppercut."
"President Bush is not seeking a confrontation or military solution," Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas told the Senate. "On the contrary, while preparing for military action, if necessary, the President is sending yet another--and perhaps a final--signal to Saddam, and giving him one last chance: Comply voluntarily, or pay the price."
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would support the use of force to back up decisions of the U.N. Security Council and guarantee adequate U.N. inspections of Iraqi development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"The fundamental issue is Saddam Hussein's refusal to abide by U.N. resolutions," Fascell said in a statement. "He continues to flout international law. The world would not accept his outlaw activities last year and we should not accept them this year."
In Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh refused to offer any public support for the U.S. action. Asked for Syria's view, Shareh said, "We support the U.N. resolutions." Pressed further, he said, "That's all I can say."
Syria was among the Arab nations that sent troops to help the United States expel Iraq from Kuwait, but the Damascus government consistently said it was opposed to a continuing U.S. military presence in the area.
Jehl reported from the Grand Canyon and Kempster from Washington. Times staff writers Melissa Healy and William J. Eaton in Washington, Robert C. Toth at the United Nations and Doyle McManus in Damascus contributed to this story.