Tokyo/Baghdad, Feb. 23 (Reuters): Secretary of state Colin Powell dropped heavy hints about Washington’s timetable for war in Iraq today, saying the UN should take vital decisions soon after a weapons inspectors’ report expected on March 7.
Powell’s signals came as former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov arrived in Baghdad on an unexpected mission for President Vladimir Putin. Primakov, a West Asian expert and a long-time friend of President Saddam Hussein, did not appear in public in Baghdad and is believed to be staying at one of the presidential palaces.
Primakov served as Russia’s prime minister from 1998-99. He travelled to Baghdad twice in 1990 as part of then Soviet efforts to avert a US-led attack to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. His missions failed.
Powell told a news conference in Tokyo he expected the UN Security Council to make a judgement about a new resolution on Iraq — to be presented by the US and Britain as early as tomorrow — soon after the inspectors’ report.
“Iraq is still not complying and time is drawing to a close when... the Security Council must show its relevance by insisting that Iraq disarm or that Iraq be disarmed by a coalition of forces that will go in and do it,” Powell said.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday excited speculation about the timing of an attack on Iraq by saying the Western forces already massed in the Gulf were “ample” for the task. But Powell’s remarks appeared to narrow the schedule.
The US military is anxious to act by April, when temperatures in Iraq begin to soar. Soldiers may have to spend extended periods in stifling protective suits and masks because of the threat of chemical or biological weapons.
Powell flew from Tokyo to Beijing today. The US, backed by Britain, is mounting a diplomatic effort to win over the 10 rotating members of the Security Council to back a resolution paving the way for war and to persuade permanent members France, Russia and China not to veto it.
China, like France and Russia, says UN inspectors should be given more time in Iraq. But analysts said it could tacitly back Washington by abstaining from voting on what it views as a distant problem not worth jeopardising Sino-US relations over.
The British government, which is sending some 40,000 troops to the Gulf, also signalled today that war to overthrow Saddam was not imminent.
“We are making a final push for peace in the course of the next week and there will be further negotiations at the UN over the next few weeks,” said foreign office minister Mike O’Brien.
“We are going to work very hard to get a second resolution and, indeed, we expect to get a second resolution unless Saddam disarms in the meantime,” O’Brien said.
“I hope he does, I hope we can avoid war... but we must ensure Saddam is disarmed.”
Public opinion in Britain is opposed to a war without UN authorisation. The anti-war mood elsewhere in Europe is strong.
Activists vowed today to block all movement of US arms by rail between American bases in Italy and Italian dock workers pledged to stop handling US war cargo. Some 30,000 people marched through the Moroccan capital Rabat to denounce US policy and at least 5,000 through Moscow.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan urged Iraqi leaders not to misinterpret such protests as a license to resist the UN. “They have to destroy these weapons... If they refuse to destroy them, the council will have to take a decision on that,” he said.