On the eve of what could be yet another showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, President Clinton warned Tuesday it "would be a big mistake" for Iraq to follow through with its threat to shoot down a U.S. spy plane.
Sounding a note of possible conciliation, however, Baghdad agreed to a United Nations demand that Iraq not expel American weapons site inspectors until after a U.N. delegation completes talks with Iraqi officials.
The U.N. delegation is due to arrive in the Iraqi capital today, with the stated mission of trying to persuade Hussein to comply fully with U.N.-mandated weapons inspections _ and to report back to U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday.
Clinton said he hoped diplomacy would prevail in ending the weeklong U.S.-Iraqi confrontation. He warned Baghdad, though, not to carry out its threat to shoot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane as it conducts planned U.N. surveillance missions over Iraq, perhaps as early as today.
"That would be a big mistake," Clinton told reporters at the White House.
"The world has an interest, stated in the United Nations security resolution, in preventing Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction," Clinton said. "That's what this is all about . . . and we have to be very firm about it."
There is extensive U.S. military capability in the region, including about 20,000 soldiers, pilots and sailors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier.
In the past, Iraqi threats against U.S. aircraft have been countered with bombing raids and guided missile attacks.
U.S. pilots currently fly warplanes on more than 100 sorties a day over southern and northern Iraq. Their mission is to enforce U.N. no-fly restrictions dating to the end of the 1990-1991 gulf war and to support U.N.-ordered inspections of Iraqi weapons production sites.
The inspections are mandated by a U.N. resolution aimed at preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or from building strategic missiles it might use to menace its neighbors.
Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, triggering the Persian Gulf war, during which Iraq repeatedly fired Scud missiles into Israel, killing or injuring scores of civilians.
Last week, Iraq began refusing to admit to weapons sites American inspectors that are part of a multinational U.N. inspection team. Baghdad also ordered the Americans to leave the country by today, touching off the latest in a string of challenges and tests of U.S. resolve in Iraq.
The inspectors' work is augmented by periodic overflights by American U-2 aircraft, built to fly at extremely high altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, to photograph sites related to weapons development.
The U-2 flights are authorized by the U.N. Security Council but are conducted by U.S. pilots. Iraq is usually notified in advance of the flights.
Iraq warned the United Nations on Sunday that it would shoot down any U-2s that continue to fly over the country, but U.N. and U.S. officials said Tuesday the flights would continue as scheduled.
"The U-2 flight, which is under the aegis of the United Nations, will continue this week," Defense Secretary William Cohen said. "The exact time . . . I will not discuss. But it will take place during the course of this week, consistent with U.N. procedures."
Cohen warned that "should there be any effort to either attack that aircraft or put it in any danger, we would view that as a very grave matter with serious consequences."
Cohen said Hussein's latest confrontation with the United States appeared aimed at trying to split the coalition of U.S. allies supporting global sanctions against the Iraqi regime.
The U.S.-backed sanctions have prevented Iraq from normal commerce _ including the sale of most of its oil _ and have helped to cripple the economy.
"I would anticipate as long as he continues to remain in power, he will seek to divide the United States and the United Nations," Cohen said. "The United Nations is united, and remains united, that he must fully comply with the sanctions and allow inspections to go forward."