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Sunday, February 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Editorial

The just war against Saddam

Within weeks, the United States and its allies could be at war inside Iraq. That war — if it comes — will be a just action, taken by a president who has reached the boundaries of diplomacy and moved to prevent further attacks on the world's democracies.

Endorsing a preemptive war will not sit well with some readers of these pages, but it will match the general mood of the country, which, in poll after poll, has shown the willingness of a majority of often-quiet Americans to support President Bush and his administration.

Entering Iraq is hardly a desirable act. It has become necessary. The longer democracies wait, the more emboldened are its enemies.

If protest to Saddam Hussein's war — for that is how it should accurately be described — were available on the streets of Baghdad, perhaps the true feelings of the Iraqi people could be measured. But dictatorship does not allow for free expression and so we are left with a healthy debate within the democratic nations.

At home, the protests to war are welcome and necessary to the larger debate about our country and its role in the world. In the end, they do not constitute a policy that will free democracy of its fearsome enemies.

And enemies there are. Indeed, the missteps of the Iraq confrontation are not from the protesters against military intervention or the hawks calling for war, but from the larger indifference to Saddam Hussein from countries that should know better. Indifference causes war to happen when murderous dictators rise — whether in Germany, Cambodia, Yugoslavia or the Middle East.

Bush can act with the lawful authority of Congress granted to him last fall, and the more-recent United Nations Resolution 1441. He may obtain further legal and moral authority from the U.N. Security Council or NATO, or from more countries willing to join the dozens now with us. The governments of a majority of European countries and a majority of NATO members are supporters of the United States.

Ultimately, we understand Bush's real authority comes from the American people. Before he acts, he must go before us another time and tell us why we can no longer delay.

For some, the case to depose Saddam can never be made. For those critics, it's not a matter of waiting for more information, but of waiting forever. For months, we have made the case on this page that inspections are the way to peel the Iraqi onion. But that hope has been turned into a charade by a dictator buying time to do more harm. As chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix said, "... The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but the active participation of the Iraqi side."

As recently as four days ago, inspectors said again that Saddam is defying the United Nations. The question clearly emerges: If there is endless elusiveness to Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors, what is the alternative?

Secretary of State Colin Powell has been making the case for forceful action. A cumulative tonnage of evidence has been tallied. Mobile biochemical labs, Iraqi sleight of hand with inspection sites, satellite photos, intercepted radio messages that eavesdrop on Iraqi plans to deceive inspectors are part of the evidence. Do they constitute a true bill indicting Saddam? For some, no. For Powell, emphatically, yes.

Saddam Hussein is not disposed to bare his country to U.N. inspectors, nor will the dictator be content until his power is restored to further threaten the region, and by automatic extension, the interlocking world.

The protests and marches about oil, or American dominance, about Bush or even the fulminating French miss the magnitude of the granite face of the threat we face after Sept. 11, 2001. Our world is far different than the one in which the first Gulf War erupted — begun, ruinously to his country, by Saddam Hussein.

In this hard-faced world we inhabit, it is the idea of democracy that is under attack, something fiercely and brilliantly articulated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Speaking in Glasgow, Blair said, "If there are 500,000 on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for. If there are 1 million, that is still less than the number of people who died in the wars he started.

"Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is inhumane. That is why I do not shrink from military action should that, indeed, become necessary."

Will it be necessary? We don't know, as the debate within the democracies continues and diplomacy shuffles along. But should war come, it will be justifiable and a just end to Saddam Hussein.

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