Powell: Inspect Before Attacking

WASHINGTON -- As debate over Iraq has intensified in recent weeks, one voice has been conspicuously absent amid the statements of other senior U.S. officials: that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. But that silence will be tested as Powell prepares to attend an international meeting in South Africa this week.

The trip in many ways reflects Powell's role as chief internationalist in an administration frequently portrayed as unilateralist even by its allies.

Powell signaled his approach Thursday in an interview with the BBC, saying that United Nations weapons inspectors should return to Iraq. Three days earlier, by contrast, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had bluntly stated that a return of inspectors "would provide no assurance whatsoever," and had talked of "a great danger that it would provide false comfort."

A portion of Powell's comments, taped for a coming program about last September's terrorist attacks, was released Sunday by the BBC. "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return," he said. "Iraq has been in violation of these many UN resolutions for most of the last 11 or so years. And so as a first step, let's see what the inspectors find."

Upon arriving in Johannesburg on Tuesday for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, a gathering on the environment and economic assistance for the third world sponsored by the United Nations, Powell will bring pledges of aid, endorse conservation programs and promote free trade and democratic rights as the keys to economic development. But Iraq will inevitably be a prominent issue as well, with Powell expected to explain the administration's plans in news conferences and private meetings with officials from African, European and Asian nations, U.S. State Department officials say.

The secretary's remarks on Iraq are sure to be carefully scrutinized by diplomats and journalists for signs of disagreement with U.S. President George W. Bush's other principal foreign policy advisers -- Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser; U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney -- who have used recent events to call forcefully for the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

However, Powell's remarks to the BBC differed little from what he said as long ago as February in testimony before Congress, and White House officials said they reflected neither a shift in his views nor any widening of debate within the administration.

Speaking on Air Force One today as Bush returned to Washington from his vacation in Texas, Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said there was no difference of opinion or emphasis between Powell and Cheney.

Powell has also often made it clear that he supports removing Saddam from power, even though he is widely thought to disagree with hawks who advocate swift, unilateral military action against Iraq.

Rather, administration officials say, the secretary believes that Bush should first press for a new round of weapons inspections and then seek international support for invasion plans. That view has recently been endorsed by three Republican foreign policy experts: former Secretaries of State James Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

But Powell has said little else in weeks, and his public restraint on Iraq in recent weeks -- part of which time he spent on vacation -- has been viewed in some quarters as evidence that he is trying to distance himself from the more bellicose statements of his administration colleagues.

"He seems not to be prevailing with regard to the multilateral approach to resolving the Iraq problem," said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who is now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"He remains an important voice in the administration, but that is not to say he is the most important voice," Hamilton continued. "It's difficult to see how the Bush administration, or Bush himself, can backtrack from Cheney's very strong, aggressive stance."

State Department officials asserted that Powell's public silence on Iraq should not be construed as evidence of either disagreement or disengagement. He agrees that Saddam is dangerous, they note, and presses his views on how best to deal with that problem in daily conversations with Bush.

 Powell plans to step down at the end of Bush's current term in 2005, Time magazine reported Monday. The magazine quoted sources close to Powell as saying that he has a firm plan for an exit after serving out the entire term, Reuters reported.