UN and Iraq In New Kind Of Standoff

The UN decided yesterday to suspend weapons inspections of new sites but to continue monitoring. Why changes now?

The stage may be set for renewed confrontation between Iraq and the West, but all sides seem to be fiddling along the way, as if unsure how they want the crisis to unfold.

A less confrontational chapter in Iraq-United Nations relations began in February, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan personally went to Baghdad to prevent an American military strike aimed at forcing Iraq to cooperate with UN disarmament teams.

But evidence in June that VX nerve gas had been "weaponized" - after years of Iraqi denials - has tarnished Iraq's credibility, diplomats in Baghdad say. Timing for a new showdown may be right for other reasons, in Iraq's view: Washington is preoccupied with high-profile problems and seems little interested in reassembling the armada on hand in February.

Baghdad wants a lifting of sanctions imposed eight years ago when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But it has yet to convince the UN it has destroyed weapons of mass destruction.

And many Iraqis now feel Washington's endgame is the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a perception that fuels a reluctance to cooperate.

A less-than-favorable report last month about Iraq's nuclear programs helped pave the way for current Iraqi frustration. And Clinton administration requests to Congress to possibly expand covert operations against Iraq have fed a growing belief that sanctions will never be lifted as long as Saddam remains in power.

But the current dispute has not taken the direct path that characterized past crises. Last Monday, talks in Baghdad broke down when Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz demanded the UN certify Iraqi compliance and lift sanctions.

Richard Butler, chief UN weapons inspector, has said that he was "very close" to closing the chemical weapon and missile files, and proposed to finish inspections by October. But many questions remain about biological weapons.

Mr. Butler refused Mr. Aziz's request, cutting short his trip. Along with the White House, however, he has been reluctant to call the situation a "crisis" at all.

Baghdad's defiance is also far from uniform. Saddam declared last Wednesday that Iraq would "completely suspend cooperation" with UN arms teams, though monitoring activities could continue.

The Security Council also hedged. Despite a March resolution warning of the "severest consequences" if Baghdad again blocked inspections, on Thursday it unanimously stated only that Iraq's decision was "totally unacceptable."

UNSCOM (the UN Special Commission), playing cautious, announced yesterday it had suspended inspections of new sites in Iraq. Monitoring was to continue.

Further moves would likely have revealed the Security Council divisions.

Mr. Annan's credibility is also partly at stake. Sharply criticized by US lawmakers for giving Saddam the benefit of the doubt in February, he has taken a strong line this time.

Annan appointed veteran diplomat Prakash Shah, from India, to serve as the political link between the Iraqi leadership and Annan - providing a line of communication bypassing UNSCOM.

The result, Ambassador Shah says, is that "UNSCOM has had to be more transparent, and engage in more dialogue and more openness [with Iraq] ... which is good, because sanctions must be lifted."

Shah recently brokered a solution when Iraq initially refused to allow warhead fragments unearthed by the UN inspectors to be analyzed at US Army laboratories. He says the Iraqis were anxious that this would be used as a delay tactic and he personally guaranteed that the tests would take no more than one month.

It was these tests, however, that revealed traces of VX, confirming that Iraq was capable of stabilizing the nerve-gas agent enough to use it as a weapon. Iraq denies it ever had such success, and insists that "neutral" laboratories in France and Switzerland make tests.

Shah left Baghdad over the weekend to meet Annan in Portugal. Timing could not be more in Iraq's favor, Western observers note. No Arab state supports sanctions, and there is widespread belief in Arab capitals that US reluctance to pressure Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians has led to its near-collapse.

Washington is also caught up in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And US forces gathered in February have been reduced.

But analysts in Iraq say that one of the most important timing considerations may be the sense in Baghdad that the unstated US policy is to see Saddam Hussein go.

High in Iraqi minds are statements made by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in March 1997, when she said that Iraq "must prove its peaceful intentions.... Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein?"

President Clinton echoed those lines last November, when he said "sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] lasts."

Also, the US administration decided recently to request authority to mount covert operations aimed at weakening Saddam. Congress had already approved $10 million to support Iraqi opposition groups. The new request reportedly envisions a plan that would create a Radio Free Iraq and help prepare a viable opposition.

"If [the US is] here to force compliance with UN resolutions, that's OK," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "But if it is to change the leadership, you can't use the UN for that."

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