Annan tries new tactic to avoid strikes on Iraq Cooperation on arms, lifting of sanctions

November 14, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration interrupted the momentum toward military action with Iraq last night to allow for an 11th-hour diplomatic gambit by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Meeting late into the evening, the Security Council gave Annan the authority to send a letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein holding out the promise of an end to economic sanctions if he grants free rein to weapons inspectors.

Although the United States continued to amass a force capable of inflicting significant damage on Iraq, the new diplomatic process seemed likely to delay the start of airstrikes for a few days at least.

The new effort, instigated by Russia, China and France, did not result in any significant softening of the council's insistence that Iraq must cooperate completely with U.N. inspectors seeking to unearth secrets about its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, diplomats said.

Emerging from the council meeting, Annan spoke briefly with reporters and then met with Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon, who emerged soon afterward to say that he expected to receive a letter from the secretary-general that he would forward to Baghdad.

Annan said he had urged Iraq to make the "wise decision" to cooperate with the inspectors.

If Baghdaddid, he said, "We will move forward with a comprehensive review. Once that is done, I hope the Council will be in a position to lift the sanctions."

Up to now, Iraq has been told it must fulfill all "relevant" U.N. resolutions, which include not only disarmament but releasing and accounting for Kuwaiti prisoners of war and seized Kuwaiti property.

U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh, speaking as president of the council for November, said, "We appreciate the role the secretary-general is playing in close consultation with the Council in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis." He said the Security Council would meet again today.

Burleigh's statement marked a shift from the previous American view that there was no need for Annan or the Security Council to get deeply involved in Iraqi diplomacy, since there was nothing left to negotiate.

Proponents of the new diplomatic tack said it would offer Iraq a face-saving way of avoiding a potentially extensive military confrontation. Diplomats were skeptical of its success, however.

The crisis began Oct. 31, when Iraq halted cooperation with U.N. inspectors who have been trying for seven years to find and destroy its means of developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Tough posture maintained

Apart from granting time for diplomacy, the White House maintained a tough posture on what Iraq had to do to avoid an attack.

In a statement issued at 6 p.m., the White House said: "Iraq must authoritatively, publicly and unconditionally rescind its decisions of Aug. 5 and Oct. 31 and cooperate fully with UNSCOM [the U.N. weapons inspectors]."

(The references to Aug. 5 and Oct. 31 pointed to two Iraqi decisions on the weapons inspectors. In the first, it barred them from searching new suspected weapons sites; in the second, Iraq blocked even most of the long-term monitoring of sites that had been inspected previously, allowing only the most routine types of equipment maintenance.)

The White House also said Iraq must accept an earlier council letter, dated Oct. 31, spelling out the aims of the comprehensive review.

"The public commitments by Iraq must be followed by concrete, demonstrable actions," the statement said.

Although the administration had insisted there was nothing to negotiate, yesterday's statement was part of a final diplomatic dance, carried out in Washington, New York and Baghdad.

Nothing new

But a Western diplomat described it as "pro forma" and said Iraq was offering nothing to indicate that a peaceful solution had much of a chance.

"Frankly, we haven't seen anything yet out of Baghdad leading us to think he's about to comply," the diplomat said.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and President Clinton both offered Iraq a chance to back down, saying there was still a chance to end the crisis peacefully.

An Iraqi position emerged soon afterward but was rejected by the White House as "nothing new." Hussein, in a statement relayed by Russia's ambassador to Baghdad, said, "Iraq is willing to react positively to any initiative which meets Iraq's legitimate demand."

Iraq complained that the U.N. letter did not offer enough hope of an eventual lifting of sanctions.

Russian diplomats described yesterday's effort to other council members as a chance to allow Hussein to "climb down" and back away from his refusal to cooperate with the inspectors. Some Western officials doubted it would end the crisis, however, saying that Iraq appeared determined not to reveal the secrets of its dangerous weapons programs.

Administration faulted

Some analysts with experience in dealing with Iraq faulted the administration for appearing to back away from military action.

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