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Helms: Military action against Iraq probable

Sen. Jesse Helms
Sen. Jesse Helms  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Iraq probably will be a target of U.S. military action in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and American forces may be "right close" to such a strike, Sen. Jesse Helms told CNN.

Helms, R-North Carolina, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican and former chairman, made his comments in an interview broadcast Saturday on CNN's Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields program.

"I don't think we're quite ready yet. As of Friday afternoon, we were not. But we're right close to it," Helms said.

Asked if he thought Iraq would be a target, Helms said, "That depends on two or three things they are trying to work out, and I don't think they'll work them out. I think [Iraq] will be a target."

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Helms' comments come amid reports that, while the State Department favors a narrow response focusing on the al Qaeda organization based in Afghanistan, the Defense Department is pushing for a wider military response that would hit at terrorist targets in a variety of Arab countries, including Iraq.

White House officials have brushed off reports of any internal divisions, emphasizing that the U.S. government stands unified.

Helms said one of the goals of the U.S. war on terrorism should be to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose regime has stayed in power in the decade after the Gulf War.

"The first President Bush ought to have gotten rid of him [during the Gulf War]," he said. "I say that with all due respect to the former president, but that was one of the major mistakes that was made at that time."

Helms, who said he spent much of the last week in briefings with administration officials held in a secure room in the Capitol, also said "some of us have been guaranteed" that no military strikes would take place "until we are ready for it to happen because if we go in there with the wrong kind of preparation, that would be another disaster."

"But we're pretty nearly there," he said.

Helms said he also thinks it is a "waste of time" for Secretary of State Colin Powell to lobby China and Russia for their support in the U.S. war on terrorism.

"China has demonstrated time and time again that they're not interested in working with the United States on anything," he said. "They are determined to do the best they can for China, regardless of the United States, and I haven't seen much better from Russia."

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