Down to the Tripwire in Iraq

UN chief Kofi Annan met the Iraqi leader yesterday, trying to strike a deal on inspections.

The last time a UN secretary-general visited Baghdad, on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, his peace mission failed.

Yesterday, current UN chief Kofi Annan was near a "breakthrough" in his last-ditch negotiations for a deal to renew United Nations inspections of Iraqi weapons sites and avoid American and British military strikes.

Even so, a deal forged in Baghdad must have a stamp of approval in New York and Washington. Mr. Annan "expects that what emerges from these talks he will be able to sell to the Security Council," said UN spokesman Fred Eckhard in Baghdad.

The real issue now, said US Defense Secretary William Cohen yesterday, is whether the Security Council will "insist upon full compliance with its own resolutions" demanding UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to suspected weapons sites.

The main sticking point in the negotiations, many observers say here, may be the issue of timing: Iraq has held to the idea of a 60-day limit to inspections of eight sensitive "presidential sites." The US has pressed for unlimited access. Annan was expected to hold further talks today.

If his mission fails, history may repeat itself. In 1991, then-Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar failed to strike a deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and American-led forces launched a 42-day bombing campaign across Iraq.

At a rate of 2,500 sorties a day, those attacks were followed by a 100-hour ground offensive and Iraqi defeat.

History books hardly note the UN visit - which was seen at the time as a personal move by Mr. Perez de Cuellar, without Security Council backing - unless to record its ineffectiveness at staving off war.

Annan welcomed in Iraq

So Iraqis may be forgiven a sense of dj vu during this current mission by Annan. Even as the top-level diplomacy was under way - this time with Security Council backing - the American armada now assembled in the Gulf is poised to strike, making final preparations in case this UN peace mission fails and the US resorts to military force.

Iraq has welcomed Annan with open arms, asking that he come to Baghdad with an "open mind and free will." But even UN signals have been mixed: On the record, officials say that Annan wouldn't have come at all without enough "wiggle room" to strike a deal acceptable to Washington, which continues its tough line against Iraq.

Off the record, however, they admit that the United States has ensured that Annan's margin of maneuver is small indeed, and that Saddam may not take the bait.

Despite early optimism that Iraq would drop demands for special handling of presidential sites - such as complete access for weapons inspectors, limited to 60 days - this issue was reported to be the chief stumbling block in marathon talks.

How Iraq works

"Iraq lives by crisis," says a senior diplomat, who held out little hope that Iraq would back down enough to prevent use of US military force in the Gulf. "Like all good detective books, if in the first chapter you see the gun, by the last chapter it will surely be used."

A new arrow in Annan's quiver is the unanimous Security Council vote on Friday, which approved a doubling of the "oil-for-food" deal so that Iraq can sell $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months to buy food and health supplies.

Though Iraq has rejected the deal - claiming that it will jeopardize its sovereignty by subjecting nearly all of its economy to UN control - the US and Britain can argue that their support shows an interest in the plight of 22 million Iraqis who have suffered during seven years of UN sanctions.

Sanctions until Saddam exits?

Iraq wants sanctions to be lifted, but officials here believe that Washington's unstated policy is that they will never be lifted while Saddam is in power, even if the United Nations declares that Iraq has destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them in the region.

Even as the diplomacy is under way, Washington continued its tough line. In a videotape broadcast to Arab countries, President Clinton on Friday warned that if Iraq had such weapons "none of the region's children will be safe.... But make no mistake about it, Saddam must bear the full responsibility for every casualty that results."

The State Department has also issued an official warning to all Americans in Iraq to leave the country, and claimed that "Iraq continues to make provocative and confrontational statements."

That view does not wash in Baghdad, where Iraqi officials say that their leaders have in fact taken a conciliatory tone. One Arabic newspaper headline over the weekend was printed in English on the front page: "One, two, three, four, we don't want war," it read.

'No light at end of tunnel'

"I think even the most anti-Saddam Iraqi can't see how Saddam is responsible," says one academic. "When I listen to radio, when it says this was 'provoked by Iraq,' this hurts me," he adds. "In the end America can impose its will, but is this what it wants? Iraq has been led to accept humiliation, and at the same time there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

Being in a weaker position

Continued US rejection of any Iraqi offer of limited inspections, however, may be part of the negotiating game, says one longtime diplomat here.

"Iraq has made proposals and said that it is flexible," he says. "But you can't say you welcome such an answer, because almost immediately you find yourself in a weaker position."

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