Iraq tests Butler's backbone Challenge: The Australian who must sound the alarm if Saddam Hussein thwarts U.N. weapons inspectors must also deal with divisions in the Security Council.

Sun Journal

November 25, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

UNITED NATIONS -- During the West's first confrontation with Saddam Hussein in 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain famously warned President George Bush, "Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly."

With the latest Iraq crisis receding, the role of global spine-stiffener falls to Richard Butler, a 55-year-old Australian career diplomat who leads the United Nations inspections team that is responsible for finding and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In the weeks ahead, it will be Butler who sounds the alarm when Hussein's security forces block the inspectors' search for evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weaponry -- and keeps sounding it until the Iraqis are persuaded again to back down.

Not since the early days after the cease-fire in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when inspectors endured a tense standoff with Iraqis, has this job posed a more perilous challenge.

The reason is that Butler reports to the U.N. Security Council, and his bosses among the council's five permanent members are deeply divided.

Hungry for a share of Iraq's potentially lucrative oil business, Russia and, to a lesser extent, France, have broken with the United States and Britain and shown sympathy for Hussein's demand that the interlocking grip of inspections and economic sanctions be eased.

"If you're sitting in a parking lot in Baghdad, you want the Security Council to be there for you," says Robert Gallucci, an American who was an official early in the inspection program and who is now dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

The stakes in controlling Iraq's weaponry, Gallucci adds, are huge: "This is a country that makes war, invades its neighbors and sends ballistic missiles to Israel."

And Iraqis have, if anything, grown more recalcitrant after years of U.N. scrutiny, he says.

When Butler assumed the job of executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission early this year, there was some question among Iraq-watchers as to whether he could adequately fill the shoes of the man he replaced, Rolf Ekeus of Sweden.

The dour Swedish diplomat had waged a relentless six-year war of nerves with Baghdad, yet had failed to gain the full picture of Iraq's weapons programs. Butler, who is quick with a joke and speaks in the relaxed drawl of his native New South Wales, at first seemed to hit it off with the Iraqis. His initial meeting with Nizar Hamdoon, Baghdad's representative at the United Nations, went cordially.

Reports from his first visit to Baghdad quoted him as saying that things had got off to a "good start."

But it wasn't long before Iraqis understood that they could not manipulate Butler.

"I think after his first trip, he was surprised at how deceitful they were," says a Western diplomat at the United Nations. "They were saying things to his face that he knew to be untrue.

"It's ironic that when he first came in, the Iraqis welcomed him as a fresh face," the diplomat says. "Now, they've decided he's the devil incarnate."

Butler declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman cited a crushing workload because of the crisis with Iraq.

Problems deepened in June, when Iraqis threatened the safety of the U.N. commission's helicopter crews and blocked access to inspection sites. Then, in September, a member of the inspection team was manhandled by an Iraqi officer when he tried to take a picture from a helicopter.

Late last month, the crisis came to a head when Iraq announced that Americans would no longer be admitted to inspection sites.

Butler refused to let Iraq dictate who could be a member of the inspection teams. When Hussein ordered the Americans out, Butler shut down the entire operation and withdrew all but a skeletal staff from Iraq. He did so without consulting the Security Council, avoiding a potentially divisive debate but causing some grumbling among its members.

David A. Kay, a leader of a U.N. inspection team that was detained by Iraq during the stand-off in 1991, says that he admires Butler's courage. It would have been easier for Butler to continue the inspections using non-Americans, Kay says, "but it would have made [the situation] much less sharply focused."

Having shown the same mettle as Ekeus, Butler quickly displayed something his predecessor notoriously lacked: good communications skills. With his burly rugby player's frame and steady gaze, Butler projects an image of calm control before the camera, even under intense pressure. His square face, topped by a steel gray tuft of forelock, is marked by an easy grin.

His explanations are blunt, slicing through the scientific jargon of arms control. And he can be politically deft. During a recent briefing for the Security Council -- repeated for the news media -- he forcefully spelled out the obstacles his inspectors have faced in understanding Iraq's weapons programs.

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