Next, Best Chance Before War

UN secretary general arrives in Baghdad tomorrow for final attempt at avoiding US military airstrikes on Iraq.

Even as President Clinton complains of bending over "backward" in seeking a negotiated resolution to the Iraq crisis, he is allowing diplomacy one last shot before unholstering the military might he has amassed in the Persian Gulf.

With the blessings of the United States and the four other permanent United Nations Security Council members, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is to arrive in Baghdad tomorrow in an 11th-hour bid to break the stalemate over Iraqi obstruction of UN weapons inspections.

The US endorsement of Mr. Annan's mission follows a White House strategy of going as far as possible toward meeting demands for a diplomatic settlement. Allies and rivals alike insist that a resolution can be reached that allows the seven-year search for Iraq's chemical and biological weapons to resume unhindered, while assuaging Baghdad.

But should Iraq spurn such a formula, Washington would have a stronger case for using force.

The US "has no political support for a military strike, but if they go the last mile for a political solution ... and Iraq then turns it down, they might be able to come back to the [Security] Council with more ... pressure for authorization to strike," says a UN official.

Diplomats and analysts say the US desire to play out the diplomatic string may also reflect a Washington effort to soften the impact airstrikes will have on America's overall relations with Russia, China, France, the Arab world, and others opposed to military action.

Beyond Iraq, the US confronts growing criticism, by those governments for the way it has in general wielded its unrivaled economic and military power in the post-cold war era.

They accuse the US of acting increasingly in its own interests in addressing some of the world's more pressing problems, such as atmospheric warming. The perceptions of American arrogance of power have been exacerbated by the US failure to pay some $1 billion in dues owed to the UN, and by US laws aimed at isolating states like Cuba and Iran by imposing sanctions on foreign firms that trade with them.

Many experts believe that France and Russia, in leading the opposition to US policy on Iraq, are not only trying to protect lucrative trade ties with Baghdad, but to disabuse Washington of any notion that it can continue to have its way in the world.

Pressure on Clinton

With only a handful of nations supporting airstrikes, Mr. Clinton is under pressure to give Annan as much leeway as possible in seeking a resolution to the crisis that began when Iraq blocked arms inspectors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in November. "The parties are getting closer," says a diplomatic source in Baghdad. "What remains to be determined is if the US is willing to give even a quarter of an inch to make a deal possible."

But, Clinton has made it clear that the US will only go so far in accepting a negotiated resolution, saying he will reject any deal that compromises the independence of UNSCOM and its access to suspected weapons sites, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's palaces.

His determination to stand firm reflects a realization that any resolution conveying US weakness will encourage Saddam to stage new provocations aimed at diluting support for UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions, which have brought economic disaster to Iraq's 23 million people, cannot be lifted until the UN certifies the destruction of its chemical and biological warfare programs.

A perception of US weakness could also tempt Saddam and other would-be proliferators of weapons of mass destruction to pursue their development, threatening American global interests and international security.

"If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity," Clinton said in his speech on Tuesday.

To that end, the US succeeded in consultations in New York in winning the agreement of the four other UN Security Council members - Russia, China, Britain and France - on guidelines that Annan will have to observe in his negotiations with Baghdad.

Diplomatic give and take

Broadly speaking, he will be seeking a deal under which UNSCOM will retain its authority in choosing the sites to be inspected, including Saddam's palaces, and duration of its searches, UN officials say. At the same time, Annan will offer Iraq mechanisms designed to address its charges that UNSCOM is an American espionage tool and its demand that its sovereignty be respected. One means, UN officials say, would be to have diplomats from the permanent UN Security Council members accompany the UNSCOM inspectors as observers.

It is unclear whether Saddam will be willing to accept a settlement that will preserve UNSCOM's ability to track down what it believes are substantial stocks of Iraqi chemical and biological warfare components.

Says the diplomatic source in Baghdad: "The trip of the secretary-general will be decisive. After that, there will be a quick easing of tensions, or bombing.

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