U.S. holds fire as Iraq capitulates Weapons inspectors to return to Iraq tomorrow, U.N. says

'We remain ready to act'

Clinton sets policy, supports overthrow of Hussein's regime

November 16, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Ann LoLordo contributed to this article from Amman, Jordan.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton lifted the threat of imminent airstrikes against Iraq yesterday, and the United Nations announced that its weapons inspectors would return to Iraq tomorrow.

Clinton canceled orders to attack Iraq after accepting Baghdad's pledge to let U.N. inspectors uncover its secrets for developing weapons of mass destruction. But he vowed "we remain ready to act" if President Saddam Hussein fails to give the inspectors unfettered access to sites and documents.

"Iraq has backed down, but that is not enough," Clinton said. "Now Iraq must live up to its obligations."

The latest standoff began Oct. 31, when Iraq halted cooperation with U.N. inspectors who have been trying for seven years to search for and destroy Iraq's means of developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In August, Iraq severely restricted the inspectors.

Iraq rescinded both the August and Oct. 31 decisions in letters sent to the United Nations late Saturday night underscoring that it would unconditionally resume cooperation. An earlier assurance had been rejected by Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, late Saturday as containing "more holes than Swiss cheese."

Clinton said Iraq reversed its latest act of defiance because of "our willingness to strike, together with the overwhelming weight of world opinion."

A senior U.S. official said American missiles and warplanes were poised to strike Iraq Saturday morning but were stopped when Baghdad gave its first sign of capitulation.

The president also said more clearly than he has before that his administration's long-term goal is to see "a new government in Baghdad that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them, that is committed to peace in the region."

Iraq's pledge returns the U.N. inspections to their status in February, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan worked out a deal with Hussein after a previous standoff. That agreement set aside so-called "presidential sites" in Iraq for a separate type of inspection in which the U.N. teams would be accompanied by diplomats.

Late last week, Annan pledged, with the Security Council's endorsement, that if Iraq were to cooperate fully with the United Nations, it could see a "light at the end of the tunnel," promising a lifting of tight economic sanctions imposed against Iraq since its invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990.

Widespread doubts

Years of Iraqi "cheat-and-retreat" tactics have produced widespread doubts that Hussein will ever reveal the full extent of his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, which enhance his power in the region.

Officials say Iraq has underreported its materials and weapons at every stage of the inspection process and built up a sophisticated system of concealment and deception.

But Clinton insisted yesterday that the inspection system would give the world more security than airstrikes would have.

Military action would mark "the end of UNSCOM," he said, referring to the United Nations Special Commission that is charged with seeking out Baghdad's weapons secrets.

"I really believe that if you have a professional UNSCOM, free and unfettered, able to do its job, it can do what it is supposed to do in Iraq," Clinton said.

Clinton said Iraq had to resolve all questions raised by UNSCOM and the agency responsible for monitoring nuclear arms, the International Atomic Energy Agency; to give inspectors unfettered access to all sites, consistent with the February agreement; turn over all relevant documents; accept all U.N. resolutions dealing with weapons of mass destruction; and not interfere with the independence or expertise of inspectors.

This last point means that Iraq must stop seeking the ouster of UNSCOM chairman Richard Butler and trying to block certain inspectors whom it says have been overly aggressive.

This year, Iraq repeatedly criticized Scott Ritter, a former Marine who sought to penetrate Baghdad's concealment mechanism.

Butler, in television interviews yesterday, was skeptical about Iraq's pledge of cooperation, saying: "This is a big 'if,' a big assumption, because they've never really done it."

Questions about Iraq's missile and chemical programs could probably be resolved in two or three months, Butler said, but its biological program will take longer to uncover because Iraq's "basic declaration isn't remotely true."

In recent months, inspectors found evidence that Iraq had loaded potent VX nerve gas onto its missiles. Inspectors also believe Iraq has understated its production of biological agents such as anthrax and the cancer-causing aflatoxin.

Iraq's opposition

Clinton's stated aim of eventually replacing the Iraqi government brought an angry response from Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who said: "I have to condemn plans of his government to overthrow the government of Iraq."

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