Bush’s State of the Union to discuss Iraq

WASHINGTON

As war talk intensified, President Bush yesterday rehearsed a State of the Union speech that is meant to confront Americans’ doubts about an attack on Iraq and to sell his plans for new tax cuts and a Medicare overhaul.

Bush attended church and jogged yesterday morning, then spent time practicing the address with confidant Karen Hughes. He had no public appearances scheduled, giving himself plenty of time to prepare for tomorrow night’s speech.

But today was sure to be a landmark date in Bush’s deliberations on whether to attack Iraq: U.N. weapons inspectors were to turn over their report on whether Iraq has cooperated adequately. The president’s communications director, Dan Bartlett, called submission of the report the start of “this last phase” in the showdown between the United States and Iraq.

White House officials have sought to play down expectations that the inspections might turn up hard evidence Iraq maintains stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, a message they brought to the airwaves again yesterday.

“I think the real headline is no proof that Saddam Hussein is complying with the United Nations in disarming,” White House chief of staff Andrew Card said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Amir al-Saadi, the Iraqi president’s science adviser, said over the weekend that Iraq has cooperated fully, but that an invasion appeared inevitable, no matter what Baghdad does.

Bush’s challenge in persuading the public of the need for war was underlined in recent polls. More than half – 53 percent – responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said the president has not yet explained clearly what is at stake to justify war.

With opposition growing overseas, the president will seek to project unity Friday at Camp David with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet Blair faces a challenge persuading his own public of the wisdom of war. Opinion surveys show that support for military action against Iraq is at its lowest level ever among the British public.

In the United States, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about Bush’s handling of the economy, with 44 percent approving of his economic stewardship and 49 percent disapproving in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

Only 35 percent in that poll said they expect Bush’s $674 billion, 10-year stimulus plan – most of that committed to tax cuts – will be very effective or “fairly effective” at helping the economy, adding to Bush’s challenge tomorrow night.

Card said he is confident Congress will approve Bush’s plan.

“There’s a sausage machine on Capitol Hill,” he said. “We gave the sausage machine all of the right ingredients, they have to churn, and I’m confident that when they turn that sausage out it’ll be the right kind of sausage for America.”

Bush will also use the speech to reiterate his long-standing goal of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Under the plan being considered by his administration, the thousands of beneficiaries who participate in traditional Medicare could not get prescription drug coverage unless they enrolled in private plans.

Bush will fill in some of the details at a speech Wednesday in Michigan, a state critical to his re-election and one that he lost in 2000.

He will also announce new initiatives and federal spending to help the needy, by working through community and religious groups.

Report will show no evidence of Iraq weapons

UNITED NATIONS

Iraq’s arms declaration is incomplete, its scientists aren’t cooperating with inspections and Baghdad is obstructing the use of a U-2 plane which could be helpful in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

After two months on the job, the chief weapons inspectors, who will issue their current assessments to the Security Council today at 10:30 a.m. EST, can’t confirm claims by the Bush administration that Iraq is rearming. Inspectors still don’t know what happened to Iraq’s stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons or how much time they have left to find the answers.

Still, with all the open questions, the reports by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei will likely be key to Washington’s efforts to bolster international support for a war on Iraq, or efforts by skeptics to avert one.

According to Security Council Resolution 1441, crafted by the Bush administration and adopted in November, inspectors don’t need to prove Iraq is rearming.

Any false statements or omissions in Iraq’s arms declaration, coupled with a failure to comply with and cooperate fully in the implementation of the resolution, would place Baghdad in “material breach” of its obligations.

– a finding that could open the door for war.

U.S. military spy aircraft crashes

SEOUL, South Korea

A U.S. military reconnaissance plane crashed in South Korea yesterday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

“We are receiving reports that a reconnaissance plane of the U.S. military has crashed,” a ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity. “We have no further details yet.”

Lee Ferguson, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said she had no information.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the plane crashed in Hwasung, 31 miles south of Seoul. It did not give further details.

The condition of the pilot was not immediately known. It was also not known if anyone else was on board the aircraft.

The United States keeps about 37,000 troops in South Korea, which shares the world’s most heavily militarized border with North Korea.

Peace deal provokes attack on embassy

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

Loyalist mobs, enraged by a French-brokered peace deal they say gives too much power to Ivory Coast rebels, attacked the French embassy and army base yesterday and beat foreigners.

President Laurent Gbagbo urged his people to accept the agreement for ending the four-month insurgency.

“There are two ways to end a conflict. Either you win the war” or submit to negotiation and compromise, the Ivory Coast leader said in Paris, where two weeks of talks between his government and rebels led to the power-sharing peace deal which Gbagbo’s own security forces called “humiliating.”

“I did not win the war,” he conceded.

As he spoke, smoke from fires and explosions filled the sky over the high-rises of Abidjan, a sprawling commercial hub of 3 million people and Ivory Coast’s main city.

For hours, French forces fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon to hold back the rioters. Most attacks concentrated on the French embassy and other symbols of Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, blamed for Gbagbo’s coming home yesterday with anything less than a clear victory.

Thousands of people – some waving sticks and clutching rocks – converged on the French embassy and set fires outside. Men armed with machine guns took positions on the embassy roof. French military helicopters buzzed across the city carrying reinforcements.

Elsewhere, mobs looted a French school and French cultural center, and ransacked a main shopping center and a private radio station. Men waving sticks and rocks set up roadblocks, attacking the few foreigners who ventured out to reach safety or their families. Embassies urged their citizens to stay indoors.

“France has disappointed us. They gave power to people who took up arms against Ivory Coast. They have opened Pandora’s box,” declared Ble Goude, an influential youth leader behind weeks of massive pro-government rallies that sometimes turned violent.

The peace deal triggered vastly different responses in Bouake, the northern rebel stronghold.

Supporters banged drums and danced in the streets, celebrating their chance to share in a transition government to lead Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer, until elections in 2005.

Sharing power is a key part of the accord to end the only war ever in Ivory Coast, which erupted Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo.

The rebels – who accuse the president’s southern-based government of fanning ethnic tensions – quickly seized the northern half of the country and, since November, took parts of the west.

The northern-based rebels claim the deal awards them control of the Interior and Defense ministries, giving them say over the army and the heavily pro-government paramilitary police.

Top officials have refused to confirm or deny that split, but it appeared to be the element that ignited the pro-government riots.

Crucial to the success of any peace deal would be support of Ivory Coast’s security forces. But that seemed in doubt Saturday, when forces failed to enforce a strict – until now – 9 p.m curfew, allowing crowds to spill onto the streets and begin rioting.

“It’s not normal,” army spokesman Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao said of indications his bosses would now come from the northern rebel flanks. “The Ivorian security defense forces weren’t even invited to the peace negotiations. It’s humiliating.”

The loyalty of Ivory Coast’s security forces has been a prime worry for leaders since the once-stable and prosperous nation’s first and only successful military coup in 1999.

Amid yesterday’s attacks, a French Defense Ministry official said France would “reinforce” its military presence – already 2,500 strong – but said details still were being worked out.

But French President Jacques Chirac later said he saw “no reason” to increase troops at this point. He played down the violence, saying “an accord of this nature automatically gives rise to a few excesses.”

SEALs perform anti-terrorism experiment

ABOARD THE USS FLORIDA

Cruise ships are sharing the ocean off the Bahamas with something menacing and stealthy: an enormous black submarine carrying Navy commandos hunting for terrorists.

The sub and its contingent of SEALs (for Sea, Air and Land) are part of a Navy experiment exploring ways to clandestinely confirm and eliminate threats from terrorist cells.

“This is a different kind of enemy,” said Capt. William Toti, who is running the $6 million exercise, Giant Shadow.

“They don’t just stand there and fight,” Toti said Saturday of terrorists. “They scatter like cockroaches. If they know we’re onto them, they’re gone.”

The centerpiece of the 10-day exercise, due to end tomorrow, is the USS Florida, which formerly carried Trident nuclear missiles.

The 560-foot Florida, based in Norfolk, Va., is one of four such missile submarines that had faced the scrap heap. Instead, the subs will now be converted to each carry up to 154 Tomahawk guided missiles and ferry more than 60 SEALs, the Navy special operations troops.

The exercise involved a simulated mission to confirm intelligence reports that terrorists were building a chemical weapons facility on an island.

Unmanned air and underwater vehicles took surveillance images. The SEALs then went ashore in rubber rafts, hid acoustic, video and chemical weapon “sniffer” sensors and took vegetation and soil samples to be analyzed for biological or chemical agents.

Some parts of the exercise had to be scrubbed because of rough seas. But officials said that did not detract from the experiment, which they already consider a success despite communications problems.

“We don’t expect an experiment to work perfectly. That’s what experimenting is about,” said Toti, assistant chief of staff for requirements for the commander of the Navy’s submarine forces.

To the SEALs, the converted missile sub means roomy accommodations, plus facilities that will help support multiple missions over several months.

Ordinarily, such missions would take them to sea on fast-attack subs, which are about 200 feet shorter and have room for only 10 to 20 SEALs. The smaller subs mean they must bunk practically on top of each other in the torpedo rooms, and they can only do one mission over a short period.

“This is a great platform for us to be able to work off of,” said Capt. Randy Goodman, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Four, SEALs based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, Va. “I’m sold.”

Critics argue that the roughly $3.8 billion it will cost to convert all four Ohio-class subs – the Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Georgia – would be better spent developing new weapons and attack submarines.

“As much as I like the Ohio-class subs – they’re big, they’re neat, they’re silent, they’re famous from Tom Clancy (novels) – I kind of have to wonder how important it is for this particular conversion to take place,” said Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst who did not participate in the experiment.

“I’m not sure if it’s anything other than a large taxi or a large bus for the SEALS,” said Garrett, of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit military intelligence and space research organization in Alexandria, Va.

The Navy, however, figures it would be cheaper to convert the subs than to create something new at an estimated cost of $12 billion.

The Florida still faces 32 months of conversion and refueling. After testing, it is expected to return to the fleet in 2007.

“They took away all my missiles, but actually it’s really exciting,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Maden, a 31-year-old missile technician from Pensacola, Fla. “It’s awesome to see change.”

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