WASHINGTON -- The United Nations Security Council branded Iraq's latest act of defiance of its weapons inspectors "totally unacceptable" yesterday.
But the generally low-key response reflected an effort by American officials to play down the urgency of the dispute.
The council's president, Slovenian Ambassador Danilo Turk, said Iraq was flouting not only past resolutions but the agreement Saddam Hussein reached in February with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which averted American military action in the last crisis.
But in a unanimous statement, the 15-member council said it "intends to respond favorably to future progress made" in getting rid of Iraq's arms of mass destruction.
Russia and France, which both hold veto power in the Security Council, often have demanded that Iraq be offered some encouragement to comply with the council's resolutions.
Wednesday, Iraq announced it would no longer cooperate with the inspectors, who have spent seven years trying to ferret out and destroy Baghdad's chemical, biological and missile programs.
Iraq has demanded that the United Nations shift to long-term monitoring via cameras and sensors, with periodic on-site visits, as opposed to the active investigation and surprise inspections.
Such a change would seriously reduce the possibility of new discoveries by the inspectors.
The latest Iraqi move to block weapons inspections followed three recent developments that underscored Baghdad's failure to reveal the full extent of its dangerous weapons programs:
Discovery in June of proof that Iraq had loaded missiles with VX nerve gas before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ++ global nuclear inspection agency, that it still couldn't declare Iraq to be totally free of a nuclear weapons program.
New discrepancies in Iraqi disclosures about its chemical weapons programs.
U.N. inspectors found a document two weeks ago that showed Iraq used fewer chemical weapons during its eight-year war with Iran than it had disclosed. This indicated that some weapons remained unaccounted for.
The Iraqis were angry and impatient with the persistence shown by chief weapons inspector Richard Butler. The Australian, while saying that he is close to being satisfied with Iraqi disclosures on its missile and chemical weapons programs, says there are still large gaps in what the inspectors need to know about Iraq's biological weaponry.
These gaps suggest that Iraq is trying to maintain a cache of dangerous weapons or be able to rebuild them once the `D pressure of regular inspections is removed.
After hearing from Butler yesterday, the council called for "an early resumption of dialogue" between Iraq and the two U.N. weapons inspection agencies: the United Nations Special Commission, which Butler heads, and the IAEA.
IAEA spokesman David Kyd told wire services yesterday that his organization had been told it no longer can carry out surprise inspections of Iraq's nearly defunct nuclear program.
"We have been told by the government of Iraq that our activities will be limited to certain declared sites. This is not acceptable and we are contacting the president of the Security Council," he said.
The United States is looking to Secretary-General Annan to persuade Iraq to back down.
"We're not in a hurry," a senior administration official said Wednesday. "The sanctions are on; people have to convince us to lift them."
The official said that having negotiated an agreement with Hussein in February, Annan shares responsibility for making sure Iraq fulfills it.
"Everyone owns this problem -- especially Kofi Annan," the official said. "His prestige is now on the line."
Putting responsibility on the secretary-general to solve the crisis could lead to a compromise that would be difficult for the United States to accept, however.
"Kofi Annan will try to figure out what we want. If we don't know what we want but don't want a crisis, he'll figure out a way to give something to Saddam," said Harvey Sicherman, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Some analysts feared that a stalemate would result in which the sanctions would remain in place but inspections would be blocked, leaving Iraq's neighbors and Washington to wonder whether it still possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has withdrawn the forces it added in the Persian Gulf when it was preparing to take military action against Iraq during the February crisis.
For Hussein, this is "an opportune time to create a crisis for which there is no ready American military answer," said Sicherman.
The Iraqi leader also sees "the president is in trouble at home," Sicherman said, referring to the Monica Lewinsky matter. An administration official scoffed at the idea that Iraq acted out of a perception that the president has been weakened.
American officials had expected a new confrontation in October, when the U.N.-imposed sanctions come up for review. This would have fit a pattern of Iraqi crises before U.S. elections, according to Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
Russia and France sympathize with Iraq's demand that sanctions be lifted; both want to advance their commercial interests once Iraq is free to export oil. Both, however, have been embarrassed in the past by Iraqi behavior.
"They're trying to divide the Security Council," Sicherman said of Iraq. "What is happening is a more united Security Council in responding to these threats."
Pub Date: 8/07/98