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U.S. WON'T RULE OUT USE OF FORCE AGAINST IRAQ

The United States still might have to use military force to open suspected Iraqi weapons sites to U.N. inspectors and feels certain of Security Council support despite reluctance from veto-holders France, Russia and China, administration officials said Sunday.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said U.N. resolutions already in force would justify military action if necessary but added, "We don't want to reach that point."

And asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" about lessening enthusiasm in the U.N. even for continued sanctions against Iraq, Richardson said, "We believe we will have support within the Security Council" if force becomes necessary.

Russia, China and France refused to support the latest U.S. effort, a draft resolution introduced Friday, to get Security Council condemnation of any further move by Iraq to keep U.N. arms inspectors from presidential palaces and other "sovereignty sites."

Iraqi officials also vowed that U.N. inspectors will never enter the sites.

"That's completely unacceptable, and hopefully the Security Council will send a resounding signal that it's unacceptable," Defense Secretary William Cohen said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

President Clinton wants to exhaust every diplomatic opportunity, Cohen said, but he is not foreclosing any option, including U.S. retaliation on its own.

Asked whether the United States was willing to go to war over the inspections, Cohen responded, "I think the president has said he's ruled nothing in or nothing out."

The U.N. inspectors are trying to determine whether Iraq has destroyed all its long-range missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear programs -- the main condition for lifting crippling sanctions imposed on Baghdad in 1990 after Saddam Hussein sent his forces to occupy neighboring Kuwait.

Like Cohen, Richardson said the United States is continuing to pursue diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict.

"But patience eventually is going to run out," Richardson said. "And I believe that there will be a united international effort through the United Nations very soon that will send another unmistakable signal to Saddam Hussein that he can't continue this snubbing of the international community."

The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, has said his inspectors "have evidence or reason to believe that prohibited items have been or do exist in places" designated off-limits.

"If Saddam Hussein moves ahead and blocks some further inspections, I think that tensions are going to rise dramatically," Richardson said.

The United States on Sunday stepped up its campaign to put diplomatic pressure on Iraq to allow U.N. inspectors access to suspected weapons sites.

"We hope to pursue this in diplomatic channels and see if we can't exhaust all reasonable opportunities to do that," Cohen said.

Iraq has banned the U.N. Special Commission in charge of dismantling the country's weapons of mass destruction from checking presidential sites. Baghdad insists no weapons are hidden at those locations.

"This is simply an intolerable position . . . hopefully the Security Council will send a resounding signal that it is unacceptable and there is no division among Security Council members," Cohen said.

Baghdad has appealed to the Security Council to respond with restraint.

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