Clinton administration officials said they will ask the U.N. Security Council today to take swift and firm action to force President Saddam Hussein of Iraq to allow Americans into his country as members of a U.N. weapons inspection team.
Iraq blocked two Americans on the team from entering the country on Sunday, its second such action in less than a week.
"This is serious, it's unacceptable and it's outrageous behavior on the part of the Iraqis," said Bill Richardson, the U.S. delegate to the United Nations. "We're not seeking a military confrontation with Iraq. We want to resolve this diplomatically. But we're not ruling anything out."
The two American inspectors, who landed at Habbaniya Airport about 60 miles north of Baghdad, were asked to leave by Iraqi officials and returned to Bahrain on a U.N. plane, news services reported. A third American who arrived with them, who works for the International Atomic Energy Agency, was not barred but chose to leave with the other Americans.
The weapons inspectors had tried unsuccessfully to enter Iraq on Thursday, and their expulsion on Sunday was the latest in a series of confrontations with Hussein over the inspections put in place after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Speaking on the ABC News program This Week, Richardson said pointedly that there was no room for compromise with Hussein's demand that no Americans take part in the inspections.
"There is no negotiation," Richardson said. "He is in noncompliance, and he must comply. This is not a fight between the U.S. and Iraq. This is Iraq confronting the United Nations."
U.N. officials said on Sunday that Secretary General Kofi Annan planned to press home that message with Hussein by sending a three-member delegation to Baghdad this week.
The three diplomats expected to make up the delegation are Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, a diplomatic troubleshooter for the secretary general; Emilio Cardenas of Argentina, a banker and diplomat; and Jan Eliasson, a senior Swedish diplomat.
Richardson previously opposed sending a similar delegation, but the United States has since been assured that the team will not negotiate, only insist on compliance.
While Richardson, selected by the administration to be its main spokesman on this issue, suggested that military action would not be the first option, members of Congress from both parties lined up eagerly on Sunday to say they would be wholly supportive if President Clinton chose to strike at Iraq.
The House speaker, Newt Gingrich said on the NBC News program Meet the Press that he would "absolutely" support a decision to take military action against Hussein. That sentiment was echoed on the program by the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, and the Democratic leaders in Congress, Sen. Thomas Daschle and Rep. Richard Gephardt.
The confrontation could heat up this week. The head of the U.N. weapons inspection team, Richard Butler, said in a telephone interview that he intended for his team to resume its work in Iraq this morning as the Security Council meets in New York.
Of the 40 weapons inspectors now in Iraq, six are Americans, Butler said. Three Americans left Thursday as part of the normal rotation of team members, a U.N. spokesperson said, and another left on Sunday. One Western diplomat said he believed that there were eight Americans still in Iraq; there was no explanation of the discrepancy.
Butler said he expected to resist Hussein's demands that the remaining Americans leave Iraq by Thursday.
"I'm mystified as to why Iraq has done this," he said, "because it cannot and will not be allowed to stand. It's simply against all the rules. U.N. procedures cannot work if a nation can say it doesn't want Americans on a U.N. team."