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U.S. warns Iraq of military strike

The Clinton administration warned Iraq Thursday it could face military action or economic sanctions if it continues to bar U.N. inspections of its weapons facilities.

Referring to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, President Clinton declared: "We can't permit a man with his record . . . to get into the weapons of mass destruction business."

"Whatever his motives are, I just want to start the inspections again," Clinton told reporters at the White House.

The warning about potential military action came from the Pentagon.

"I think sufficient warnings have been given," said Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials canceled a scheduled port call for the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, keeping it within striking range of Iraq.

The warship had been scheduled for a rest stop at the United Arab Emirates in the far southern end of the Persian Gulf over the weekend. The visit has been delayed for an unspecified time, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.

Cohen took time before a Pentagon awards ceremony to assert that Iraq's blockade of U.N. inspection teams and its alleged tampering with surveillance cameras are clear violations of the 1991 cease-fire accords that ended the Persian Gulf war.

"This is not a negotiable item," Cohen said of Iraq's refusal to admit American members of the U.N. weapons inspection teams. "It is imperative that Iraq comply with U.N. mandates."

The defense secretary said the United States will wait to take any action until it sees reports from a U.N. team currently in Baghdad.

"There is sufficient time to consider a whole panoply" of steps that might be taken, Cohen said.

Asked whether those include U.S. military strikes, the defense secretary said: "They could include further economic measures. They could include military as well."

The impasse apparently is allowing the Iraqis to avoid inspections and hide equipment at suspected arms sites. U.N. officials have also delayed flights of the American U-2 surveillance planes while the U.N. delegation is in Iraq.

"It is a real setback," Bacon said of the delayed inspections.

For the fourth time Thursday, Hussein barred U.S. members of an international weapons inspection team from entering the Persian Gulf country to look for biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi president claims the Americans are bent on spying.

Iraq admitted Thursday that it had moved some equipment away from U.N. surveillance cameras, insisting that it was only taking precautions against a possible U.S. air strike.

The chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, suspended U.N. weapons inspections last week after Baghdad ordered American members of the inspection teams out of the country, precipitating the current standoff.

"It looks a little bit like, "the cat's away, the mice will play,' " Butler said in New York.

Pentagon spokesman Bacon charged the Iraqis with attempting to maintain capabilities to build Scud missiles and renew production of chemical and biological weapons.

U.N. sanctions and inspections "are valuable because they do prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction," Bacon said.

In College Station, Texas, where Clinton helped dedicate George Bush's presidential library earlier Thursday, the commander-in-chief said that was exactly why Hussein wants the inspections halted and "why it's so important that they resume immediately."

Barring just the American inspectors "may just be a ruse," Clinton said, adding, "Maybe . . . there's something that they're covering up, which is exactly why the international community has to resume the inspections."

Bacon, asked about reports of Iraqi troop movements, said there has been evidence of "troop dispersal in the last few days," but that the action is deemed to be a defensive measure.

Iraqi officials have said their actions are due to possible U.S. air strikes.

Bacon said the Pentagon hasn't sent any new troops into the region as a result of the Iraqi dispersal, since Washington has "a substantial naval presence in the gulf, with a considerable range of capabilities."

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said after a Cabinet meeting at the White House that she has been discussing the Baghdad mission with U.N. officials.

"It's very important for Saddam Hussein to understand that the international community is behind the Security Council's very strong voice, that he has to abide by the Security Council resolutions," she said.

For his part, former President Bush said he believes Clinton is "doing exactly the right thing" on Iraq.

In an interview with CNN, Bush indicated that it may be up to the United States to act unilaterally, saying, "We've got to do what's right."

Bush, who was president when Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, formed an international coalition within six months that had driven the Iraqis from the neighboring emirate.

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations bar Iraq from exporting oil, which is its major source of income. The sanctions have devastated the economy and will not be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq has destroyed its major weapons systems.

A U.N. oil-for-food program permits Iraq limited oil sales to buy food and medicine, and the Iraqi government makes food available at below-market prices.

Queried about Cohen's remarks on sanctions, Bacon said the program "clearly . . . could be disallowed" if the U.N. decides to take such action.

On another matter, Bacon was questioned about a report that the United States had asked Turkish officials for permission to launch offensive strikes from the base at Incerlik. The Pentagon spokesman said he knew of no such request.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, said at a news conference in Chile that he had sent a letter to Hussein in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

Annan's three envoys held a fourth meeting with Iraqi officials in Baghdad and postponed their departure until after a session today.

_ Information from Reuters was used in this report.

U.S. military attacks in Iraq

Since the gulf war ended in 1991, U.S. forces have attacked targets in Iraq to enforce the U.N. cease-fire that created protection zones where Iraqi military fights are prohibited:

March 20, 1991

U.S. jet shoots down an Iraqi military plane north of Baghdad.

Dec. 27, 1992

U.S forces destroy Iraqi MiG-25 jet in southern zone.

Jan. 13, 1993

U.S., France and Britain bomb Iraqi anti-aircraft base in southern zone.

Jan. 17, 1993

U.S shoots down MiG-29 in northern Iraq, fires cruise missiles at nuclear site close to Baghdad.

June 27, 1993

Two U.S. warships fire cruise missiles at Iraqi secret service base in Baghdad.

June 29, 1993

Iraqi radar station in southern zone bombed.

Aug. 19, 1993

U.S. jets destroy rocket base in northern zone.

Sept. 3, 1996

U.S. fires 44 cruise missiles on northern Iraq after Iraqi troops enter Kurdish protection zone.

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