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Rebuild and we'll hit again, Iraq told

While delaying a decision on whether to bomb Iraq, the Clinton administration has raised the stakes by threatening another attack if President Saddam Hussein managed to rebuild his weapons arsenals after a first assault.

Claiming growing support for a strike if diplomacy fails to open suspect arms sites to U.N. inspectors, the administration clarified its strategy and said it did not need approval from Congress to hit Iraq.President Clinton noted new support from Canada and Australia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Netherlands, Germany and Argentina backed force, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, traveling in the Persian Gulf, added Oman to what is still a short list of Arab allies.

"Friends and allies share our conviction that Saddam must not be allowed to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or the missiles to deliver them," Clinton said at a White House ceremony.

Later Tuesday, Clinton discussed strategy with Albright, national security adviser Samuel Berger and a representative for Cohen. The White House session was the latest of their regularly scheduled meetings on the standoff with Iraq.

Cohen, en route to Qatar, said "a real coalition" was forming to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And while Albright told the Senate Committee that Clinton had not decided to attack, the president said at the White House, "We must be prepared to act, and I am very grateful that others are prepared to stand with America."

While the administration contends it does not need the approval of other countries, a new U.N. resolution or an act of Congress to punish Iraq, the hedged response around the world, particularly among Arab nations, is a sore point and also potentially encouraging to Saddam.

"This is a real coalition," Cohen said. "These are countries who are pledging their assistance and material support, and we are very happy to receive it."

Meanwhile, ultranationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said in Baghdad on Wednesday that U.S. threats against Iraq could plunge the world into war.

"The threat that Iraq is facing could lead to a world war," Zhirinovsky told reporters through an interpreter after flying into Baghdad on a plane carrying medical aid for Iraq.

He said Russia would not take part in any such conflict but wanted to prevent it from breaking out.

Iraq's foreign minister said Wednesday that Baghdad is ready to open eight vast presidential complexes to inspection for a limited time.

The United States and Britain quickly rejected the proposal, which was similar to one made earlier by Iraq.

Inspectors appointed by the U.N. secretary-general would have two months to "search the sites, inch by inch, inside the buildings, the gardens . . . everywhere," Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington opposes any such compromise. "We feel very strongly there should be clear, unfettered access to all sites by U.N. inspectors," he said in New York.

Cohen visited the aircraft carrier USS George Washington on Wednesday to pump up pilots, sailors and Marines who could be on the cutting edge of the military operation against Iraq now dubbed "Operation Desert Thunder."

"You are the steel in the sword of freedom. You are the tip of the sword," Cohen told hundreds of sailors assembled in the huge warship's hangar bay.

Cohen, completing a four-day swing through the Persian Gulf states, said the warship is intended to "send a signal to our adversaries . . . that they should take great care."

Cohen told the sailors that Hussein has lied, cheated, and deployed weapons of mass destruction and, unless he meets United Nations demands, faces a military strike.

"Our battle group is ready to go," said Rear Adm. Michael Mullen, the commander of the George Washington's 9-ship armada. "We hope to be an instrument of peace."