| President Bush giving the State of the Union address in Washington on Tuesday. (AFP)
Washington, Jan. 29: In yet another step in the countdown to war in the Gulf, the US has asked a sceptical UN Security Council to convene on February 5 to consider what President George W. Bush described last night as “the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world”.
Bush said in his annual State of the Union speech delivered to Congress that secretary of state Colin Powell will go to that meeting to “present information and intelligence about Iraq’s illegal weapons programmes, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups”.
He then added ominously: “We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding.
“If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him”.
In the run-up to a confrontation in the Gulf, White House officials have been poring over minute details of how President John F. Kennedy handled the missile crisis with Cuba which brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.
“Whether there will be a ‘Stevenson’ photo or ‘Stevenson’ presentation that would be as persuasive as Adlai Stevenson was in 1962, that I cannot answer,” Powell said at a meeting with European journalists, details of which were made available by the state department yesterday.
The reference was to US envoy Adlai Stevenson’s dramatic display before the UN of aerial photographs of Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba.
Moscow failed to respond to such proof and the presentation was a turning point in the crisis, finally persuading Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to pull out the missiles.
Powell told the European journalists that “we do have a number of intelligence products that convince us that what we are saying is correct...that they (Iraqis) are doing these things, and we hope in the next week or so to make as much of this available in public as possible”.
Bush presented some of that information in his speech last night.
He said Baghdad had not accounted for up to 25,000 litres of anthrax, 38,000 litres of botulin toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent and some 30,000 munitions that can be equipped with chemical weapons.
It has become imperative for the White House to present evidence of Iraq’s non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on disarmament because of the rapidly dwindling support among Americans for another Gulf war and huge opposition to the idea abroad.
Yesterday, Nato was deadlocked over supporting US war plans against Iraq, with France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg opposing military action against Baghdad.
All Nato decisions are taken by consensus.
Bush devoted a major portion of his speech to domestic issues, seeking $400 billion over the next decade for medical care for the elderly, $1.2 billion over an unspecfied period for developing zero-emission fuel cell vehicles and $600 million in the next three years to treat Americans with drug infection.
He also strongly defended his tax cuts and painted a picture of economic revival. But the contrast with the President’s State of the Union speech last year was sharp, both inside the Capitol building where it was delivered and outside.
Bush was applauded 77 times during the speech which lasted just over an hour, but unlike last year, most of the applause came from Republican legislators.
Democrats sat stiffly, but politely and listened to the speech, except when Bush spoke on issues of national security.
And outside the Capitol, a large crowd of anti-war protestors staged a theatrical production called “The Sorry State of the Union”.
It showed video collages of warplanes, logos of discredited corporate giants like Enron, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bombed cities and dead bodies. Such a protest would have been unthinkable at this time last year when the President’s popularity was at an all-time high.
Minutes after Bush ended his speech, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy announced that he would table a new resolution in the Senate requiring the President to give Congress “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” before sending American troops into Iraq.
Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said the President “did not make a convincing case that the use of force now is the only way to disarm Iraq, or that removing Saddam from power would guarantee that a new regime would not pursue the same policies”.