NATO Tells Saddam to Disarm

P By Ken Fireman

pRAGUE, Czech Republic – Still riven by divisions on Iraq but anxious to show a united front to the world, the NATO alliance Thursday called on Saddam Hussein to disgorge himself of any weapons of mass destruction and pledged to take undefined “effective action” to ensure his compliance.

The statement was adopted during a landmark NATO summit in which the alliance agreed to create a rapid response force, streamline its command structure and shift its focus to combating terrorism.

Meeting for the first time in a country that once stood on the Soviet side of the old East-West divide, NATO also took in seven new members, all of them formerly under communist rule: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

After the close of the NATO meeting Friday, President Bush will travel to St. Petersburg for a quick summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview with Russian television, Bush said Russia’s substantial economic interests in Iraq “will be honored” should Saddam be toppled by U.S. military action.

The precise wording of the Iraq statement provided the major uncertainty hanging over the two-day NATO summit. The final language pledged “full support” for United Nations resolutions demanding Iraqi disarmament, “deplored” Iraq’s previous failures to comply and urged it to reverse course.

In a carefully crafted coda, the four-paragraph statement said the NATO allies “stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the U.N. to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq” with the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution. It went on to note that this resolution “has warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations.”

U.S. officials praised the statement as a powerful message of resolve that would make it easier to avoid a military confrontation over Saddam’s weapons programs. “We are trying very hard to send a strong signal to the Iraqis that there is only one way out of this, and that is to disarm fully,” said White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

But the statement stopped short of committing the alliance to participate in the military action that the Bush administration has vowed to launch if Saddam does not comply with U.N. demands for disarmament. And Germany, the NATO member with the strongest objections to the use of force against Iraq, reiterated Thursday that it would not join in such a mission.

U.S. officials declined to clarify what seemed to be the deliberate ambiguity of the words “effective action” in the statement. “Effective action means action that will be effective,” Rice said. “And what’s going to be effective is to do whatever it takes to make sure that Saddam Saddam is disarmed.”

In all his comments about Iraq, Bush has taken pains to say that military action would be a last resort and that he still maintains hope for a peaceful outcome. But when Rice was asked whether administration officials believe voluntary Iraqi disarmament is likely, she said: “We haven’t seen anything yet which suggests that this is a leopard that’s changing its spots.”

Apart from the wording of the Iraqi statement, the only uncertainty at the summit was whether Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would put aside the ill will that developed when Schroeder won re-election by trumpeting his opposition to military action against Iraq. In Prague, Bush pointedly declined to schedule a private meeting with Schroeder like those he held with French, British and Turkish leaders. The two men did encounter each other at a NATO dinner Wednesday night. “We greeted each other cordially,” Bush said.

But when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked whether any hard feelings persisted, he twice declined to answer directly, saying only, “Our nations will continue to work together.”

Rice and other administration officials portrayed the results of the summit as a clear victory for Bush’s vision for NATO and a vindication of his leadership abilities. They said the decisions on the rapid response force, command structure streamlining and shift to anti-terrorism were all taken at the behest of the president.

They also noted that Bush had called 17 months ago for NATO to undertake a major expansion this year, even if it meant pushing the alliance up to Russia’s border with the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which Moscow ruled for decades. The decision to take in seven new members was a fulfillment of that vision, they said.

Putin has gradually eased away from objections to the latest NATO expansion. Bush in turn has voiced greater understanding for Russia’s long and often brutal war in Chechnya, especially since the Chechen terrorist attack on a Moscow theater last month.

In his interview with Russia’s NTV channel, Bush said he would urge Putin to seek a political solution in Chechnya but expressed support for Putin’s decision to launch a commando rescue operation during the theater takeover.