Iraq Probes Coalition In Search of Dialogue

Arabs, Russians, French retreat a little from early unified stance

THAT looks like a large step backward for Iraq could become a small step forward.

For now, Baghdad's challenges to coalition flights in the Western-imposed no-fly zones over Iraq have stopped. Iraq is once again guaranteeing the safety of United Nations flights carrying weapons inspectors. Fifty-two UN officials and staff, part of the first returning inspection team, arrived yesterday.

Yet events of the past week, particularly the United States-led bombing attacks that Iraq says killed 45 people, have placed new strains on the Gulf war coalition. That wear and tear may in time lead to the kind of give-and-take dialogue with Iraq that Baghdad has long pushed for without success, some analysts say.

Of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the Russian Federation has been the most openly critical of the coalition raids. While still insisting on Baghdad's compliance with UN resolutions, Moscow says further military action must come directly from Council decisions.

While the French government officially supported the raids, one key government leader said any more attacks must be "appropriate and in proportion" to Iraq's UN violations. British Prime Minister John Major is said to have urged restraint in his several pre-raid chats with former President Bush. But Mr. Major reiterated his support Wednesday, countering French concerns by saying the attacks were "within international law" and "wholly justified."

The most serious chinks in the armor of the two-year-old coalition lie in the Arab world. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan have criticized the raids. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have provided air bases for coalition patrols, complain that the Security Council lacks evenhandedness.

"The Arabs are moving backward, each to some degree for their own reasons," says Richard Murphy, former US ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia and senior fellow for the Middle East with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"We [the US] have to be concerned about keeping the largest possible number of countries supportive of our actions. Close consultations is the clear message for the new administration."

Dr. William Griswold, an Arab history expert at Colorado State University, says the US needs to convey the idea that Americans do not view the Gulf war and UN demands on Iraq as a Christian vs. Islamic issue, as he says many Muslims have begun to assume.

ONE key question Clinton faces is whether to continue the Bush administration policy tying the fall of President Saddam Hussein's government to any lifting of economic sanctions on Iraq. Just before moving to Washington, Clinton backed away from a comment made in an interview that suggested he was open to normalizing relations with Iraq.

"The ouster-of-Saddam factor is in the, `Wouldn't it be nice?' category," Ambassador Murphy says. "Will Clinton be prepared at some time in the future, when everyone agrees that Iraq has finally fully implemented the UN resolutions, to vote ... in favor of lifting the economic embargo? That's the question - and that may be really what the dialogue [desired by Iraq] is being sought for."

"That's the essential policy decision the new administration has to make," agrees F. Gregory Gause III, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies.

The Vatican, at Iraq's request, appealed Jan. 20 to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a dialogue with Council members. But there is no sign the UN is in any hurry to talk. Diplomats say Iraq knows what it must do. Baghdad, they say, still does not recognize the new border with Kuwait, represses its Iraqi minorities, disputes the no-fly zones over its territory, and has harassed UN weapons inspectors.

One diplomat says he saw no sign of a "serious rift or division" in coalition strategy on Iraq during this week's private Security Council meeting on the subject. One key Council ambassador, he says, said that any dialogue with Iraq would have to be based on a concrete proposal and be "worth something."

Still, any UN or US dialogue with Iraq is apt to come later rather than sooner.

"The time is not yet ripe for a dialogue with Saddam," says Richard Ullman, professor of international affairs at Princeton University.

"I think there has to be a substantial record of compliance over time before that can open up," he adds.

Many analysts expect to see a "charm offensive" by Iraq over the next few months. Yet few of them doubt that more tough challenges for the Security Council lie ahead.

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