Nizar Hamdoon: Iraq's Super-Salesman at the U.N.

March 21, 1993|By MARK MATTHEWS

NEW YORK — New York. -- Nizar Hamdoon is back, but his style is crimped.

During the mid-1980s, a period he calls "the golden Iraqi-American age," Baghdad's envoy to the United States cut a wide swath in and out of Washington. The embrace of an oil-rich dictatorship and a democratic superpower was aimed at restraining Iran, then the region's No. 1 threat to U.S. oil supplies.

Now, a defeated but still defiant Iraq is the regional pariah, and Mr. Hamdoon, its ambassador to the United Nations, has the clearly frustrating task of trying to win back a measure of acceptance.

A dark Lincoln waits outside the Iraqi mission here, a town house on East 79th Street off Fifth Avenue, but it doesn't take him far. His movements are restricted to New York City's five boroughs as a result of Baghdad's cutoff of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Past the double-entry security, the mansion has a down-at-the heels look, with a couple of plaster patches visible on an old wall, a clock that appears to have stopped and a tiny, ancient elevator.

The evident decay is an apt metaphor for Mr. Hamdoon's current, overriding objective: getting the United Nations to lift the economic sanctions, imposed after Iraq seized Kuwait in August, 1990, that have cut off Iraqi trade and oil sales, hobbled its economy and embittered its people.

To make his case, he cites the spread of radical Islamic movements and the re-emergence of Iran as a regional threat, arguing that Iraq's continued weakness has hurt, rather than helped, stability in the region.

Many Arab governments, he said, are "very much threatened by internal factors, by extremist factors within their own countries. This is what we are trying to attract the attention of the international community to, that weakening Iraq is not going to serve any of those interests of the big powers.

"On the contrary, the weakening of Iraq can only draw into that vacuum more aggressive powers and forces which will eventually have an impact on the political order of the region."

If anyone could succeed with this argument, it is probably Mr. Hamdoon, 48, a suave diplomat with a reputation for being discreet -- so much so that, departing from U.N. practice, he attends even crucial meetings with ambassadors from major powers alone, without a note-taker.

Mr. Hamdoon, who replaced the gentlemanly Abdul-Amir al-Anbari last August, displays at times the hard edge of someone who has built a career in Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. But he is also seen as better plugged into events in Baghdad.

"What you get is more or less the party line," said a Western diplomat. Adds an Arab colleague: "He has a reputation as a man who kept his word. The things he couldn't deliver, he didn't promise."

But so far, largely isolated and facing a united front by the United States, Britain and France, Mr. Hamdoon's image of effectiveness has been challenged by one setback after another.

In January, he received the 48-hour ultimatum from the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition to remove its surface-to-air missiles from a no-fly-zone in southern Iraq, a prelude to renewed allied bombing.

Last month, he was summoned by the Security Council president for a dressing-down following an incident in which, U.N. inspectors say, Iraqi guns were pointed at inspectors' helicopters during a search for missile equipment.

And this month, reports surfaced of renewed Iraqi assaults on the Shiite population of Southern Iraq. While not confirming them, the State Department said Iraq continues to launch small-scale military attacks in the region, violating a post-Gulf war resolution requiring a halt in repression.

Even Mr. Hamdoon's effort to weaken sanctions around the edges, for instance by restoring commercial transactions to rebuild Iraq's telephone system, have made little progress.

"Every time he tries, something foolish is done by Baghdad that hamstrings him again," says Richard Murphy, who got to know the envoy while the Reagan administration's top Mideast official. "It's not easy to have a charm offensive in Baghdad. It doesn't come naturally."

Perhaps not, but it seemed to during Mr. Hamdoon's tour in Washington. In an interview recently, the plump, shrewd-eyed envoy eased up on his guarded answers to sound nostalgic about the lost relationship.

"Iraq was one of the few countries in the Arab world that was ready to deal with the United States from strength rather than from weakness, but also based on mutual interest," he said.

Midway through its eight-year war against the Tehran regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iraq was "defending the political order" at a time when "all the sheikdoms of the Gulf were shaken by Iranian fundamentalism."

pTC Mr. Hamdoon, a Muslim who attended a Jesuit high school and later studied architecture, moved easily through a range of Washington settings, developing a network of contacts second only, among Arab states, to that of Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

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