Published on Sunday, September 15, 2002 by Reuters
Action Against Iraq Possible in January - Italy
by Crispian Balmer
WASHINGTON - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met President Bush on Saturday and predicted afterward that action might be taken against Iraq in early 2003 if Baghdad continued to bar U.N. arms inspectors.
It was the clearest indication yet from a world leader on the timetable for any move against Baghdad, but Berlusconi said he was sure Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would eventually bow to United Nations' demands rather than face attack.
"However, if I should be proved wrong tomorrow and Iraq does not comply with the U.N. ... then I think one can think in terms of (action) in January or February," Berlusconi told a news conference following his meeting with Bush at Camp David.
"You need time for any action. Nothing can be improvised in this sort of field," he said.
Although he declined to discuss what precise steps might be taken against Saddam, Berlusconi said it was clear the United States was ready to use force.
The Bush administration is pushing the United Nations to issue a tough new resolution in the coming weeks aimed at forcing Baghdad to comply with previous pledges to open up its weapons' program to outside inspectors.
"Saddam will have to accept the resolution that the United Nations is drawing up. It will be in his best interests," said Berlusconi, adding that the Iraqi leader was "a pragmatic person" who would not want to risk losing power.
Bush has said he is "highly doubtful" that Saddam will end 11 years of defiance of the United Nations and has called on the world body "to show some backbone" and stand up to Iraq.
BEST OF FRIENDS
Berlusconi is eager to portray himself as Bush's closest continental European ally and was rewarded for his loyalty with a coveted invitation to the rural Camp David retreat where he had lunch with the president's family.
He was only the second Italian prime minister to go to Camp David and he followed in the footsteps of another staunch U.S. supporter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who flew to the Maryland retreat for talks with Bush last weekend.
If Washington decides to go to war with Iraq it will almost certainly need to use numerous air and naval bases dotted around Italy as staging posts during the build-up.
A senior political source said Berlusconi would want to offer up Italian forces for the war effort, but said the prime minister would face a tough time winning the backing of Italy's traditionally anti-war public.
Making the case for action, Berlusconi told reporters he believed Iraq posed a serious threat to world peace and urged the United Nations to act with determination.
Ministers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- met on Friday for exploratory talks on a new resolution aimed at getting weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
France wants a two-stage approach, with an initial resolution demanding the return of the inspectors to be followed by a second document spelling out the consequences should Iraq continue to breath defiance.
Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul turned politician, said the French approach didn't make sense.
"What happens if Saddam says 'no' to the first resolution? We have to hang on for a second resolution, leaving Saddam to twiddle his thumbs waiting to be attacked?," he said.
Italy is not a member of the Security Council and Berlusconi's comments are bound to annoy Paris. The United States has yet to reply publicly to the French suggestion.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd