WASHINGTON – The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee says he believes war with Iraq is inevitable, and it could interfere with the country's fight against terror.
"I'm convinced that the president is going to go in there, one way or the other," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Skelton said he based his views on public and private comments from President Bush and top Defense Department officials. He said he doubts the Bush administration would seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution before beginning a war, though this could change as a result of international pressure.
He said it's not clear how difficult the war would be.
"It could be a rollover; it could be a first-class fistfight," he said. "Either way, I'm concerned about it taking assets, both intelligence and military assets, away from the war on terrorism."
Congressional Democrats have walked a fine line in expressing criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy, careful to avoid the appearance of challenging Bush's leadership as the nation seemed headed to war. Skelton's comments reflected those of other Democratic leaders who do not question that Iraq should be stopped from developing weapons of mass destruction but argue that other international problems, such as terrorism or North Korea, pose greater dangers to Americans.
Skelton acknowledged lawmakers can do little about Iraq beyond urging Bush to shift priorities. Congress already approved a resolution backing the use of force in the Persian Gulf country. Skelton was among a minority of Democrats who supported the resolution and said he still believes it was the right thing to do.
On North Korea, Skelton said he favored negotiations to ease tensions over that country's nuclear programs. While the United States should not submit to threats, it may be necessary to offer energy assistance to North Korea to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, speaking Monday in South Korea, raised the possibility of energy aid to the North. The United States provided fuel oil to North Korea under a 1994 agreement to stop its weapons programs. The agreement was nullified in the fall after the United States confronted North Korean officials with evidence that they had a uranium enrichment program under way.
Skelton noted the administration didn't like the 1994 agreement, but "I think that's the only ball game in town."
"You're going to have to talk to them. You're going to have to do some kind of negotiation," he said.
On a proposal to reinstate the military draft in the United States, Skelton said he agreed with supporters that the military does not represent a cross-section of American society. But he said studying and implementing a workable draft would take years because of serious problems that would have to be overcome.
The all-volunteer force, which began under President Nixon three decades ago, "has worked and worked well. The young people in uniform are very good at what they do."