KUWAIT _ Defense Secretary William Cohen said today the United States has "strong support" from the government of Saudi Arabia despite its refusal to declare support for possible air strikes against neighboring Iraq.
"We had a very good meeting. ... I am now confident we have a very strong relationship," Cohen told reporters traveling with him on a four-day tour of the Persian Gulf.
Cohen declined to divulge details of the meeting late Sunday and early today with King Fahd and Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister. He then flew to Kuwait for discussions with the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, and other leaders, as well as several of the F-117 stealth bombers pilots who could lead attacks on Iraq from a base in central Kuwait.
In Baghdad, Iraq, President Saddam Hussein dispatched diplomats to Arab capitals today to try to rally support for his position in the standoff over U.N. weapons inspections.
The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted unidentified Egyptian officials as saying the United States has given Iraq a deadline of Feb. 17 to comply with U.N. resolutions or risk a military strike. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Iraq has been sparring for months with U.N. weapons inspectors, barring them from "sensitive sites" including presidential compounds on grounds of sovereignty.
The United Nations insists its inspectors must have unfettered access to all suspected weapons sites, and the United States and Britain have threatened to use force to achieve this goal.
The U.N. Security Council must confirm that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before punishing trade sanctions, imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, can be lifted.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said after meeting with Cohen in Munich on Sunday that the defense secretary assured him Israel will get advance word of any U.S. military strike against Iraq.
In a reversal of position, Cohen also told Mordechai that Israel has the right to retaliate for any Iraqi attack, Mordechai said.
As for Saudi Arabia, Cohen said before meeting with officials there he would not seek permission to mount an air strike against Baghdad with U.S. jets based at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
There are about 50 U.S. combat jets and 50 U.S. support aircraft at the base to help enforce the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq imposed after its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. No Iraqi planes are permitted to fly in the zone.
The support planes, which could aid a potential U.S. strike against Iraq, include KC-10 and KC-135 tankers for refueling, RC-135 and EF-111 planes for radar jamming and electronic eavesdropping, EC-3 AWACS for airborne command and control and U-2 spy planes.
"The Saudis ... are providing strong support with the no-fly zone," Cohen said. "We have strong support from the Saudi government."
With no diplomatic solution in sight, the issue facing policy makers is how hard to hit Iraq in the event of a military strike. Several leading Republicans say long-term goals must include driving Saddam from power.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said time was running out and the initiation of force could come within weeks.
"You are dealing with a very dangerous man," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Sunday of Saddam. "Our goal should be to get him out."
Lott, speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," said he was not advocating assassination, which is against U.S. policy, "But I'm talking about a coherent long-term policy" including support for democratic movements and expanding the no-fly zone over Iraq.
Ultimately, Senate intelligence committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on "Fox News Sunday," we're going to have to get rid of him, one way or another."
The lack of Saudi approval for air strikes from its soil could complicate a very large military operation against Saddam. But Cohen insisted it would not prevent a significant attack, should President Clinton order one, because the United States already has sufficient forces elsewhere in the region, along with Navy ships.
Cohen and the two senators accompanying him noted that a joint U.S-Saudi statement said both sides are "confident that the fine, close cooperation of our two countries will continue."
Asked about the difficulty of rallying a multinational coalition like that organized to combat Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Cohen said: "It's always more difficult ... when you don't see Saddam raping and pillaging Kuwait.
Sen. John Warner, who took part in the Saudi talks, said Cohen got as strong support as anyone ever has from the Saudis. "The key word (in the statement) is continue," said Warner, R-Va.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., added: "The statement says cooperation is continuing. That is as clear as anyone can expect."
After Kuwait, the secretary headed to Oman and later to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudis have said repeatedly they prefer a diplomatic solution to the confrontation over U.N. demands that inspectors be given unconditional access to suspected Iraqi weapons sites.
In fact, shortly before Cohen arrived, Prince Sultan told the Saudi newspaper Arab News, "We are against striking Iraq as a people and as a nation."
But Cohen pointed out that Sultan also said that Iraq should abide by the U.N. resolutions imposed on Iraq.
The Saudi stand against their deployment means the Pentagon will rely on cruise missile strikes from Navy ships and Air Force aircraft, and bombing runs from bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and the British-owned island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Besides the six radar-evading bombers, the U.S. Air Force has at least six F-16 fighters with anti-radar weaponry and 18 A-10 ground attack planes in Kuwait.
As the secretary tried face-to-face diplomacy, Clinton called Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada and Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands on Sunday to gauge support in the crisis with Iraq. U.S. officials suggested Chretien would publicly indicate soon "an interest in supporting or participating" in a military action should it come to that.
Earlier, Clinton consulted by phone with Saudi and Australia leaders.