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White House withholding judgment on Iraq deal

President Clinton consulted with world leaders Monday about a tentative U.N. agreement with Saddam Hussein that might avert military strikes against Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Clinton may be "in a box" - stuck with a poor agreement he has to accept.

The administration withheld judgment and kept American forces in the Persian Gulf ready for action. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said there was no plan for a draw-down.Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were briefed by national security adviser Sandy Berger on what the administration knows about the tentative accord. Clinton was a half hour late to a White House meeting with the nation's governors, explaining, "I've been working on the situation in Iraq."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, meanwhile, was briefed by Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Richardson had a copy of the agreed document, Rubin said.

"It's not a time for high-fives," he said. He also reiterated Albright's admonition Sunday, before the deal was struck in Baghdad, that the United States would not accept a phony settlement and was prepared to act alone militarily, if need be.

The president said he had a lengthy discussion by phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his most steadfast ally, and planned to call Russian President Boris Yeltsin and French President Jacques Chirac. Clinton also spoke with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Sunday night after Annan struck the agreement with Saddam Hussein.

Lott, R-Miss., said the Clinton administration is now "in a very awkward position" of either accepting an agreement that may be flawed or bucking allies that are now even more firmly opposed than ever to the use of force.

"I was worried that this initiative by Annan was going to put the president in a box and that's exactly what's happened," Lott told reporters at the Capitol. "This is another example of how the administration's foreign policy is subcontracted to others. Everybody says this is good enough, and yet it may not be good enough. But the president would be in such a box because of the way it was handled he had no alternative."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking to business leaders in Smyrna, Ga., said, "I hope that (Annan) has gotten a good agreement and I hope it is one that guarantees a chemical and biological weapon-free Iraq." He urged the administration to be ready for immediate action if Saddam fails to live up the agreed terms.

Administration officials were intrigued but not convinced that Saddam had met all conditions for unlimited U.N. access to weapons sites in the agreement.

It may take a couple of days before Clinton and his advisers have all the facts they want to decide whether the crisis with Iraq is over. Annan was flying to France Monday and then back to New York to report to the U.N. Security Council, probably Tuesday.

Even if the report turned out to be completely positive, administration officials and others stressed the litmus test would be whether Iraq followed through and opened its arms stores to U.N. inspectors at times and places of the inspection team's choosing.

Asked whether he believed the agreement was likely to satisfy U.S. demands, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday on NBC's "Today" show, "I would suspect that it probably is." He added, however, that given Saddam's past record on dealing with weapons inspectors, "We may most likely be revisiting this problem in a month or two."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said that even if the deal is solid, the U.S. government should step up efforts to oust Saddam. He said he planned to propose that Saddam be brought before an international war crimes tribunal.

"One way or another we're going to have to topple Saddam Hussein" to ensure that he does not build weapons of mass destruction, Specter told CNN Monday.

A previous impasse on weapon inspections was resolved in November only to have Iraq shift strategies and restrict inspections in January. The current crisis was spurred by Iraq's refusal to accept American inspectors, accusing them of espionage.

In Baghdad on Monday, Annan signed what he called a "serious, credible agreement" with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

At the same time, the Pentagon began steps to call up some 500 military reservists for possible assistance in case of an attack on Iraq.

Aziz credited Annan's diplomacy - and not the U.S. military threat - for clinching the deal. The agreement came from "the goodwill he brought with him - not the American or the British buildup in the Gulf, and not the policy of saber-rattling," Aziz said.

Even before the official signing, the U.S. caution contrasted with the near-jubilation within the Annan entourage. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said the agreement assured the rights of U.N. inspectors and did not include a time limit on searches for biological and chemical weapons ingredients.

"We obviously have serious questions," Rubin said Sunday. "Whatever happens, we will be looking for action, not words," on whether Iraq meets the terms set down by the United States, Rubin said.

One condition for the settlement, he said, was unlimited access for the U.N. monitoring commission. Another was letting it choose the composition of each team based on expertise, not nationality.