Iraq backs down, hopes Clinton will make a deal But his aide says he's not impressed

January 20, 1993|By Mark Matthews and Richard H.P. Sia | Mark Matthews and Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Saddam Hussein sent a "gesture of good will to the new American president" yesterday, but neither the incoming Clinton administration nor the outgoing Bush administration were much impressed.

On the eve of Bill Clinton's inaugural, Baghdad said it would halt threats to allied aircraft patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq and allow flights by U.N. weapons inspectors.

But Washington quickly signaled that the action was insufficient to remove the threat of further military action and demanded full compliance with all United Nations Security Council resolutions. "We will judge Iraq by its actions, not its words," the State Department said.

And George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's chief spokesman, said, "We expect full compliance with all the requirements of the U.N. resolutions."

Iraq has attempted to block U.N. delivery of humanitarian aid to Kurds in the north and also has refused to accept the U.N.-designated border with Kuwait.

The latest exchanges of messages came during another day of U.S. air attacks against Iraqi targets. Pentagon officials said U.S. fighter jets attacked in the northern no-fly zone after Iraqi missile and radar installations "locked on" to the planes. Three U.S. planes drew anti-aircraft artillery fire.

Iraq's good-will gesture came amid increasing signs that the once-solid anti-Iraq coalition was running into difficulty. Yesterday France was less than totally supportive in light of Sunday's damage to a Baghdad suburb from an errant U.S. missile.

And Mr. Clinton's camp seemed once again to be signaling some shift from the Bush administration's position.

While President Bush had vowed that normal relations with Iraq and a lifting of sanctions would be impossible so long as Mr. Hussein remains in power, Mr. Clinton's spokesman put the stress on the Iraqi leader's "behavior."

"The president-elect has said there is a way [to change relations], and that's for Iraq to change its behavior, for Saddam Hussein to change his behavior, and for Iraq to be in full compliance with U.N. resolutions. We're not there yet," Mr. Stephanopoulos said.

His choice of words was similar to what was said last week by Mr. Clinton -- and then speedily retracted after it was interpreted as softening the U.S. line against Mr. Hussein.

U.S. officials acknowledged that Mr. Hussein's latest move makes renewed attacks more difficult to justify politically. They would make it harder still to impose an even stronger policy aimed at drastically weakening his regime militarily.

"What we're probably seeing is a new phase of cooperation," said a senior Bush administration official instrumental in Iraq policy. "He's hoping this cooperation will create sympathy for an unraveling of sanctions and constraints on him."

The same official predicted a tendency "basically for people to say, 'He's complied. What more do you want?' "

In a statement, the Iraqi government said it was halting its armed challenge to the no-fly zone "to give the new U.S. administration a new opportunity to study the ban imposed on Iraqi flights in areas in the north and the south."

"It is also to allow the new administration to start a constructive dialogue," the statement said. "We believe the coming months will be sufficient for the new U.S. administration to study this issue and understand other issues, particularly the unjust embargo imposed on the people of Iraq" under the U.N. cease-fire resolution.

Later, it was announced that the Baghdad government agreed that U.N. weapons inspectors would be allowed to fly into Iraq and their safety would be ensured.

"This is a statement which I think we should take seriously and look upon in a positive light," said Rolf Ekeus, who heads the zTC U.N. commission that is supposed to search for and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S., British and French air strikes were designed to squash Iraq's opposition to the no-fly zones. It also involved a U.S. missile attack that heavily damaged an industrial site linked to nuclear weapons developement.

Pete Williams, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Iraq's air defense network in the south had been rendered inoperable and that its nuclear weapons program was dealt a damaging blow by the destruction of its most sophisticated machine tool facility.

But the attacks also exposed serious breaches in the once-united world front against the Iraqi dictator, with widespread complaints in the Arab world that the United States was applying a double standard.

Even Saudi Arabia, which privately had pushed for strong U.S. action, raised this issue in a statement by King Fahd yesterday.

France, one of the principal allies in the anti-Iraq coalition, yesterday failed to show unswerving support for the latest military attacks.

A French spokesman said yesterday the government believed action against Iraq should be "appropriate and proportionate."

Asked if this meant the French considered the U.S. action to be inappropriate or disproportionate, Louis Mermaz, the spokesman, replied enigmatically: "I think I have expressed myself clearly, if indirectly."

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