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Powell Says U.S. Set to Go It Alone

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed the American case for confronting Iraq before a deeply skeptical European audience Sunday, opening a week of intense diplomacy with an appeal for Western unity but warning that the United States is prepared to go to war alone.

Speaking in Davos, Switzerland, Powell said Iraq had failed to account for enormous quantities of chemical and biological weapons, and he called the threat of such weapons’ falling into the hands of terrorists “the greatest danger of our age.”

He also revived the Bush administration’s assertion that the government of President Saddam Hussein has links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, a claim that the administration has so far supported with scant evidence and that is viewed with skepticism by America’s allies and even by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Powell’s remarks came at a time when disagreements over Iraq have sharply increased tensions between the U.S. and much of Europe.

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In his speech to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of political and business leaders, Powell attempted to repair that rift, recalling centuries of transatlantic cooperation and responding to European complaints that the U.S. is behaving rashly.

He signaled in his remarks, released here by the State Department, that the White House would not treat a key U.N. weapons inspection report due today in New York as a pretext for an invasion. The Bush administration is “in no great rush to judgment tomorrow or the day after,” Powell said.

“We will work through these issues patiently and deliberately with our friends and with our allies,” he said. But he also challenged European leaders’ pleas for patience.

“How much more time does Iraq need?” he said, adding that the U.S. reserves the right “to take military action against Iraq alone, or in a coalition of the willing.”

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European officials reacted Sunday by renewing their calls on the Bush administration to continue working through the United Nations and to allow weapons inspectors more time.

“I don’t believe it will take them months to find out whether he’s cooperating or not,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. “But they should have whatever time they need.”

Blair has been the White House’s staunchest ally, but public opinion in Britain, like that elsewhere in Europe, is overwhelmingly against war.

Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, said Sunday night that the U.N. inspectors should be granted more time if they ask for it. And though he did not respond directly to Powell’s speech, he warned of the consequences of a war with Iraq.

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“Let’s not underestimate the consequences ... for the unity of Iraq, the stability of the region, for the equilibrium of the world, in a world full of disorder,” he said during a television appearance. “What is also at stake is the capacity of the world to create a means to respond to crisis. Will it also be necessary to intervene militarily in North Korea? Will it be necessary each time the international community confronts a crisis to choose military intervention?”

The inspections should be allowed to go on for “some weeks, perhaps some months” if necessary, De Villepin said. And while underscoring France’s long friendship with the U.S., he noted that his nation reserved its right to use its veto power at the Security Council if the U.S. insists on a course of action that France cannot support.

Powell’s speech was delivered amid an ongoing buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Within a month, the American military is expected to have more than 150,000 troops in place.

Iraq and the U.S. also have traded increasingly heated rhetoric in recent days, with a newspaper operated by Hussein’s elder son, Uday, warning Sunday that American and British troops would return home in “plastic bags” in the event of an invasion.

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The White House also signaled openly for the first time Sunday that there may be circumstances in which it would consider using nuclear weapons in a war with Iraq.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said that if Iraq unleashes chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Hussein “should anticipate that the United States will use whatever means necessary to protect us and the world from a holocaust.”

Asked whether that could include nuclear weapons, Card replied: “I’m not going to put anything on the table or off the table.”

Card’s comments, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” were in response to reports in The Times this weekend that the Pentagon’s invasion plans for Iraq include provisions for the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons.

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The scenario is seen as highly unlikely, but experts say the mere mention of such contingencies reflects a more aggressive posture by the Bush White House than by previous administrations. Arms control experts have complained that even raising the possibility of using nuclear weapons harms U.S. diplomatic standing and sends a disturbing message at a time when Washington is seeking to prevent Baghdad from obtaining -- and other governments from spreading -- nuclear weapons.

Members of Congress have also expressed concern.

“It’s very chilling to talk about first use of nuclear weapons,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

There were also signs that the Democratic leadership was giving some ground in the Iraq debate.

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader, said she believes that diplomacy and inspections should be given more time, but she allowed that the U.S. might have to proceed without securing support from the United Nations.

“I would have preferred that approach, but not necessarily,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.” Pelosi and most Democrats in the House voted against a measure last fall authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

In his speech, Powell reinforced a point the administration has struggled to make in recent weeks: that the U.N. resolution passed last year places the onus on Hussein to prove he has eliminated his stocks of weapons, not on inspectors to prove that they exist.

“This is not about inspectors finding smoking guns,” he said. “It is about Iraq’s failure to tell the inspectors where to find its weapons of mass destruction.”

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He said Hussein has failed to account for materials documented by weapons inspectors during the 1990s, including 30,000 warheads and other munitions, thousands of quarts of anthrax and botulinum toxin and tons of material that can be used to produce other biological agents.

Powell also sought to soothe tensions between the U.S. and Europe, which he joked had “been in marriage counseling ... for over 225 years.” Differences on Iraq, he said, “should not be equated with American unilateralism or American arrogance.”

His tone was in sharp contrast to several exchanges last week, when German and French leaders held a joint news conference to announce their opposition to U.S. policy, prompting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to say the two countries were “a problem” and were part of “Old Europe.”

Powell’s speech came at the outset of a busy diplomatic week: Following the delivery of the weapons inspectors’ report to the United Nations today, President Bush is scheduled to give the State of the Union address Tuesday.

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The expectation had been that Bush would use the speech to sell increasingly wary American voters on military intervention in Iraq. But Card sought to tamp down that expectation Sunday, saying the speech “is about much more than Iraq.”

Powell also raised anew the administration’s claim of links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden, saying Baghdad has “clear ties to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.”

Several members of Congress said Sunday that they have yet to see evidence supporting this assertion. The White House’s insistence has also been a point of contention in Europe, where top anti-terrorism officials have called the assertion groundless and have expressed dismay in recent months as the Bush administration has shifted the international debate to Iraq and away from Al Qaeda.

“We are waiting to see any evidence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda,” a French diplomatic official said Sunday.

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White House officials have said Al Qaeda prisoners in U.S. custody have indicated that Iraq provided some training on chemical weapons, but those claims are unsubstantiated.

Other reported links have been discounted. The CIA says it can find no evidence that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers met an Iraqi agent in the Czech capital, Prague, before the attacks. An Al Qaeda operative did turn up in Baghdad last summer, but the operative had lost a leg in the war in Afghanistan and appears to have gone there seeking medical treatment.

Even as Powell concluded his speech Sunday, U.S. and British planes were again striking targets in the “no-fly” zone in southern Iraq. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command said coalition planes dropped precision-guided bombs on five Iraqi military communications nodes.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

War of words on Iraq

The following statements were made by officials Sunday:

“This is not about inspectors finding smoking guns. It is about Iraq’s failure to tell the inspectors where to find its weapons of mass destruction.”

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Secretary of State Colin L. Powell

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“Let’s not underestimate the consequences ... for the unity of Iraq, the stability of the region, for the equilibrium of the world, in a world full of disorder.”

French Foreign Minister

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Dominique de Villepin

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If Iraq unleashes chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “should anticipate that the United States will use whatever means necessary to protect us and the world from a holocaust.”

White House Chief of Staff

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Andrew H. Card Jr.

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Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.


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