Clinton softens his tone on Iraq Level of compliance with U.N. inspections encourages president

May 01, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton adopted a new, more conciliatory tone toward Iraq yesterday, saying he was "encouraged" by Baghdad's cooperation with United Nations weapons inspectors and suggesting he may soon cut the U.S. force buildup in the Persian Gulf.

The president held out the hope that by October, the United Nations would be able to scale back its inspections of Iraq's nuclear program and switch to more passive long-term monitoring.

"We are encouraged by the level of compliance so far with the U.N. inspections and by the evidence that has been [gleaned] on the nuclear side that more progress has been made," Clinton said at a news conference.

Clinton said he had not gotten any recommendation from the Pentagon on pulling back U.S. forces, but "at some point in the future I would anticipate some reallocation of our resources." The United States has two aircraft carriers and 36,400 personnel in the area, roughly double what it had in October.

A senior official, acknowledging a shift in tone, said the White House had to acknowledge Iraqi cooperation in order to maintain support on the U.N. Security Council for the whole system of inspections bolstered by sanctions. Russia, China and France have demanded that the council reward Iraqi cooperation and give Baghdad an incentive to disarm further.

On Monday, the United States won a diplomatic victory when the council resisted Iraqi lobbying and threats and agreed to maintain economic sanctions against Baghdad for another six months, until October.

At the same time, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, acknowledged for the first time that Iraq had made progress in allowing inspectors into presidential and other sensitive sites and in disclosing its past nuclear-weapons programs.

Richardson's remarks were comparatively grudging, and noted gaps in what Iraq had disclosed.

"We, the United States, acknowledge progress in the areas of access to presidential and sensitive sites. There appears to be some progress in the nuclear file; however, we believe that it is premature to totally close that file," Richardson said.

Ten days ago, State Department spokesman James Rubin criticized the Iraqis for having supplied "incomplete information in a piecemeal fashion" to nuclear inspectors. On other weapons programs, he said, they "continue to lie and hide the truth." Rubin said the record "shows how far away they are from the time when the U.N. could declare them in compliance."

Clinton said yesterday that "we believe that if Baghdad will continue to work with us, that by October we [and] the U.N. may well be able to certify that they are actually in compliance on the nuclear side and they can go from the inspection to the monitoring phase."

Monitoring involves installation of sensitive devices and other techniques to detect if Iraq is trying to restart a nuclear program.

Officials say there are potentially serious gaps in the information Iraq provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency that have prevented its inspectors from offering a clean bill of health.

Iraq has failed to volunteer information on all the help it has received from abroad in developing its nuclear weapons program.

Also, Iraq has not disclosed to inspectors how it concealed the program in the past, leading to suspicion that it might still harbor some clandestine weapons program.

U.N. officials have been saying for months that Iraq has yielded much more information on its nuclear-weapons program than on other aspects of its weaponry: poison gas, biological warfare agents and missiles.

The latter programs are the responsibility of a separate agency, the U.N. Special Commission. Commission Chairman Richard Butler has said that despite a display of Iraqi cooperation in recent months, Baghdad has not revealed any new information.

Butler reported Tuesday that his inspectors had uncovered new evidence of mustard gas. He also has said Iraq has what he suspects is a supply of fuel for long-range missiles, which it is barred from having.

In other comments on foreign policy matters, Clinton was much more upbeat about the Middle East peace process than any of his subordinates have been in recent weeks and voiced the hope of a deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week that would get the negotiations back on track.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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