White House plans campaign for U.S. public’s support on ousting Saddam

W By Peter Slevin

wASHINGTON – The Bush administration, anticipating a successful U.N. Security Council vote on an Iraq resolution, plans to embark soon on a campaign to build public support in the United States to challenge and most likely unseat Iraqi President Saddam Saddam, U.S. officials said.

At a time when polls suggest declining enthusiasm for a U.S.-led military assault on Saddam, top officials will be urging opinion makers to focus on Saddam’s actions in response to the United Nations resolution on weapons inspections – and on his past and present failings. They aim to regain momentum and prepare the political ground for his forcible ouster, if necessary.

The public relations effort “has to focus on all the things that have gone on in Iraq, the threats it presents and the way people have had to live. And the fact that things could be a lot better if he wasn’t around,” a senior administration official said.

With the administration’s blessing, a new group is forming to press the case in the United States and Europe for ejecting Saddam from power. Called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the organization is modeled on a successful lobbying campaign to expand the NATO alliance. Members include former Secretary of State George Shultz, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

Committee chairman Bruce P. Jackson called the Iraqi government “a tyranny that needs to be changed” and said the group will be “useful for education, for talking to people about what’s at stake.” He said one purpose will be to lobby for resources to rebuild Iraq and restructure the country as a democracy.

Despite continual campaign trail criticism of Iraq by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, polls released last week showed a decline in support for U.S. military action to topple Saddam. The Pew Research Center found 55 percent of Americans support an attack on Iraq, down from 64 percent in August. A Fox News poll showed a decline to 62 percent from 72 percent.

Only 27 percent of 1,751 Pew respondents said they would favor the use of force if the United States were acting alone, down from 33 percent in mid-September. Sixty percent of opponents and supporters alike said they fear Iraq would use chemical or biological weapons if attacked.

“There is a great deal of concern about the consequences of war,” said Pew researcher Carroll Doherty, who also noted a widening partisan divide, with 51 percent of Democrats opposing action and 40 percent in favor. “The public effort by the White House has not been prominent in recent weeks. Most of the action has been behind closed doors at the U.N. and coverage has been overshadowed by the sniper.”

A more prominent effort is just what the administration intends, once the sensitive U.N. Security Council debate and Tuesday’s elections are over. White House officials emphasize that President Bush has made no decision about how to proceed against Saddam, and in recent weeks, officials have left open the possibility that Saddam could change sufficiently to preserve power.

But leading administration officials privately give the Iraqi leader virtually no chance of coming clean. U.S. contingency planning continues for a wide array of possibilities, from coup d’etat to abdication to armed American invasion, with a follow-up military occupation to help install a new government.

Aware that a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections could take months to resolve, the administration wants to keep the pressure on Saddam while building support for a possible war. Critics have warned that a military move against Saddam could cost American and Iraqi lives, destabilize the Middle East, incite anti-American feeling and deliver Iraqis into an uncertain future.

A series of upcoming briefings of foreign policy groups, Iraq specialists and other opinion makers will be a “new phase,” said a White House spokesman, who described the goal as building fresh public support for U.S. policy. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, will be much involved.

Hadley co-founded the NATO project. Its board members included Rice, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell advised the group, Jackson said.

While the Iraq committee is an independent entity, committee officers said they expect to work closely with the administration.

Kerrey, president of the New School University, described the committee as “a group of people who will talk to Americans about why the liberation of Iraq is something the United States ought to do.”