WASHINGTON -- Tacitly acknowledging that the U.S. campaign to contain Iraq is collapsing, the Clinton administration will support a proposal next week to ease economic sanctions against Baghdad and dilute efforts to monitor Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
The proposal would remove the limits on Iraqi oil sales permitted under a United Nations-administered program, U.S. and U.N. officials said. The oil sales proceeds are used to buy food and humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people.
At the same time, the administration plans to accept rules for a new team of U.N. arms inspectors, who would answer first to U.N. bureaucrats rather than directly to the U.N. Security Council, the officials said.
In the past, the council has been more willing to risk a confrontation with Baghdad than U.N. officials in New York have.
Nearly a decade after the United States pledged to contain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a combination of international fatigue, humanitarian concern, greed and a dollop of anti-Americanism is forcing Washington's hand.
"The policy is beleaguered," said Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We have no inspectors [in Iraq]. Sanctions are being questioned. On the other hand, nobody has a better alternative."
Despite the U.S. concessions, there is no guarantee that Security Council nations will agree to the new terms, and Iraq is lobbying against them.
A White House report to Congress last summer noted that vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were uncovered by U.N. inspectors, and concluded: "It is only prudent to assume that he is still intent on such development."
The administration, however, seems prepared to accept that it will never fully eradicate such weapons.
"We face the fact that proliferation will go on at a low level," said Anthony Cordesman, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center. "That doesn't mean inspections won't be useful. They could stop large-scale deployments."
The administration's maneuver highlights the difficulty of maintaining allied support for isolating Hussein nearly 10 years after the Persian Gulf war.
Russia, a traditional friend of Iraq, is especially problematic.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently suggested that Moscow would support Washington on Iraq if the administration would swallow its criticism of the Russian crackdown in Chechnya. President Clinton refused, U.S. officials said.
Support for economic sanctions is waning because Iraq's elites are evading them while the Iraqi people suffer misery and privation.
In addition, Baghdad has divided the Security Council by signing multibillion contracts with Russian and French oil companies that take effect once sanctions are lifted.