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S P E C I A L: The Standoff with Iraq

U.S.'s Iraq policy catches flak in Ohio

Town Hall In this story: February 18, 1998
Web posted at: 5:23 p.m. EST (2223 GMT)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) -- The Clinton administration took its Iraq policy to the American heartland Wednesday and ran into opposition from a variety of quarters.

At a town meeting held in St. John Arena at Ohio State University and aired exclusively on CNN, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger encountered a noisy, opinionated crowd and considerable opposition to another war with Iraq.

vxtreme CNN Special: An International Town Meeting

Kelsey Elliott, who said she was a member of a coalition of anti-war and anti-racist organizations in Columbus, appeared in the arena wearing a bandana across her face. She said she opposes U.S. policy toward Iraq and was particularly opposed to a military strike on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"If people live under a tyranny," she said, "that is not a reason to kill them."

The heckling became so intense at one point that Albright interrupted CNN's Judy Woodruff and said, "Could you tell those people I'll be happy to talk to them when this is over. I'd like to make my point."

The points the three officials made during the 90-minute show were familiar to those who have followed the crisis in the media. Namely, that the United States would prefer to see a peaceful resolution and hopes that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will make significant progress when he visits with Iraqi officials this weekend.

Some question why Iraq singled out

Amid heckling, Albright takes a question from the floor and defends the U.S. position against Iraq
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Part 3 - Albright's final response
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But they insist that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein abide by U.N. resolutions and the terms of the cease-fire negotiated after the Gulf War in 1991.

Berger said that should military action be necessary, "the cardinal principle of the planning of this operation has been to seek to minimize civilian casualties.

"Obviously, that's not possible (to eliminate them altogether), especially when you're dealing with someone who uses people as human shields. But we have no intention of trying to wreak havoc on the Iraqi people."

John Strange, a Miami (Ohio) University graduate and a substitute teacher in the Columbus public school system, told CNN that many countries in the world are, in his opinion, "guilty of sins" similar to Iraq's.

When pressed, Strange conceded, however, that there is no evidence other countries have used chemical weapons against their own citizens and citizens of other countries.

"It is clear that others have weapons of mass destruction," Albright said. "The question is their proclivity to use them. Saddam Hussein is apt to use them on his own people, not to mention his neighbors."

The opposition to U.S. policy seemed to center in particular on the potential suffering faced by Iraqi citizens, although one heckler made his way to a microphone and said it was not a town meeting but "a media event staged by CNN."

'Deal with Saddam, not the Iraqi people'

He asked how Albright, Cohen and Berger could sleep at night, knowing that innocent Iraqis would be killed and injured by any military strike.

"We will not send messages to Saddam Hussein with the blood of the Iraqi people," he said. "If you want to deal with Saddam, deal with Saddam, not the Iraqi people."

"What we are doing," replied Albright, "is so that you all can sleep at night."

She was interrupted by sustained applause, and continued to say that this "is a very different kind of world" and that an example of the use of biological weapons occurred a few years ago when hundreds of Japanese on a subway were sickened by a biological agent.

"We need to put a stop to dictators who have weapons of destruction," she said. "I am very proud of what we are doing. We are the greatest nation in the world ..."

Albright stopped again, while the audience rose and applauded.

"... and what we are doing," she resumed, "is being the indispensable nation, willing to make the world safe for our children and grandchildren, and for nations who follow the rules."

'If lives need to be lost, let it start with mine'

A caller from Germany who identified himself as a member of the U.S. armed forces, told the panel that he agreed with what they were trying to do, "And if lives need to be lost, let it start with mine."

His statement was met with another round of applause, but the tough questions -- and the heckling -- resumed.

Some students found the heckling disturbing. Gina Schweiterman said she did not expect the town hall to be "as confrontational." Schweiterman, a junior at Ohio State, said she is not sure what President Clinton should do about Iraq, but she said the loud expression of opinion was "scary."

Brad Johnson, a recent graduate of Northwestern and a resident of Columbus, said he was "embarrassed by the extreme factions" in the nearly 14,000-seat arena. Johnson said he listened attentively but was not persuaded by the arguments of the administration spokesmen.

He told CNN he favors a policy aimed at removing Hussein from power, a position that even the hecklers seemed to support.


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