Iraq's comeback to world stage gathers strength As U.N. loosens grip, some diplomats fear retreat on inspections

March 07, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Outlines are emerging of how Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime might return to the international community sooner than expected -- economically stronger and with greater influence in the gulf region and beyond.

And possibly with some of its capacity to build weapons of mass destruction still intact.

Bit by bit, the United Nations Security Council is loosening the tethers that have impoverished ordinary Iraqis for seven years, allowing Baghdad to import a rising number of goods and to refurbish its once-thriving oil industry.

As Iraq's ties with other countries eventually expand, some diplomats say they fear the Security Council might decide to phase out the most aggressive inspections of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons program, even before inspectors have finished their search.

"This would be serious for nonproliferation," said a high-ranking Western diplomat.

Under this scenario, the United States might increasingly have to act alone in trying to contain the Baghdad regime, relying on costly military deployments like the one still under way in the gulf.

Even now, high-level envoys are moving in and out of Iraq, making Hussein a pariah among fewer and fewer world leaders. The latest visitor was Bertrand Dufourcq, a top official in the French Foreign Ministry, who carried a message to Hussein this week from President Jacques Chirac of France.

"You can no longer rule out the possibility that the world will decide to accept Saddam," said Chas. W. Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council.

So far, the United States and Britain have managed to unite the Security Council behind their demand that intensive U.N.

inspections continue. The two countries say the search should not end until inspectors are satisfied that Iraq is no longer hiding its chemical and biological warfare material and missiles.

But pressure from France, Russia, China and other nations that want to build trade and diplomatic ties with Iraq could erode this determination over time, diplomats and experts say.

Many analysts predict that inspectors will come up empty after the searches of so-called presidential sites that are now open to inspectors under the deal negotiated by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with Baghdad.

If this happens, "Iraq will play it up for all it's worth," said Michael Moodie of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute.

In the absence of dramatic discoveries by the inspectors in the months ahead, Moodie said, "the stage is set" for an end to the aggressive on-site inspection process. The Security Council, despite U.S. resistance, might move to phase out aggressive inspections and rely more on long-term monitoring, with routine inspections, cameras and chemical sensors.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Moodie said.

"There will always be an element of doubt," said a U.N. official who requested anonymity. "It will be a political [by the Security Council] rather than a scientific decision on whether to go to long-term monitoring."

Rolf Ekeus, the Swede who headed the U.N. disarmament program in Iraq, said that, eventually, "council members can agree: 'There is still a problem, but the monitoring [program] is excellent. There is very little problem, and the overriding concern is saving the Iraqi people and getting Iraqi oil on the market.' "

"The members could agree on a vague ending, a gray-zone kind of ending," Ekeus said.

A White House spokesman, P. J. Crowley, said the United States would oppose ending the inspections until the inspectors themselves are satisfied. The United States could block such a move in the Security Council.

"I do not think we would be willing to move forward with any kind of sanctions relief unless we were confident they no longer possess weapons of mass destruction," Crowley said.

But a European diplomat said diplomats from other countries on the Security Council had discussed the idea of shifting from aggressive inspections to long-term monitoring even if "we still have some doubts" about Iraq's weapons. Russia has already pressed unsuccessfully for the Security Council to give Iraq a clean bill on nuclear weapons.

Noting that the most serious worry about Iraq's weaponry involves biological agents that could be quickly reconstituted, Freeman said, "We could conceivably face at some point a Security Council that is not willing to sustain the whole thing."

Freeman, who favors efforts to topple Hussein, said time is running out for trying to achieve it.

If the inspectors can satisfy themselves that Iraq has divulged or destroyed all its dangerous weaponry, the United States will face great international pressure to let Iraq reclaim its place as one of the world's biggest oil states.

French officials, for example, say the lifting of sanctions against Iraq's free export of oil should be "automatic" once U.N. inspectors conclude that Iraq has met its obligations to the inspections.

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