UN's weary squeeze on Iraq

Weapons monitoring and sanctions tug of war for Security Council,with no Iraqi cooperation in sight.

At first, Security Council members did not know what they should do after the bombings in Iraq. Now a month later, their problem is that they have too many ideas.

With proposals from Canada, France, Russia, and the United States on the table, the 15-member body will tackle the deep divisions among them.

France set the talks in motion Jan. 13 by contending that the oil embargo should be lifted. "This embargo has no more raison d'tre. It hurts the people of Iraq," said a French position paper distributed at the United Nations last week.

Seeking to undercut France's moral argument against sanctions, Washington quickly suggested remedies to humanitarian concerns in a country hard hit by eight-year-old sanctions. The US said Iraq should be allowed to sell as much oil as necessary, but only to buy food, medicine, and other basic needs. Mindful of popular support for Saddam Hussein in the Middle East, acting US Ambassador Peter Burleigh stressed that oil-for-food funds could be used for the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca expected of every able Muslim at least once in a lifetime.

Expanded oil-for-food

In other words, the US would allow only an expanded version of the oil-for-food program instituted in December 1996 in which Iraq has been permitted to sell $5.2 billion in crude oil every six months.

Yet in the program's fourth phase, which ended in November, Iraq raised only $3 billion because of low world prices as well as its dilapidated oil-producing machinery. The US recommended speeding approval of Baghdad's applications for spare parts, conceding that this may not fully address humanitarian concerns. Washington therefore floated the idea of encouraging government and private organi- zation donations as well as allowing Iraq to borrow funds from frozen accounts.

French, Russian, and Chinese diplomats, however, counter that this does not go far enough. One diplomat calls the US proposal a public-relations ploy that would hardly elevate funds. Meanwhile, US officials see the push for a complete lifting of the oil embargo as a scheme to allow French and Russian companies to develop Iraq's potentially lucrative oil industry.

The split between the two sides grows even deeper on weapons inspections. France, arguing that the Security Council needs Iraq's cooperation in order to secure the weapons inspectors' return, suggests that the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) be replaced by a commission that would monitor Iraq and focus on preventing Saddam from developing weapons of mass destruction rather than trying to eliminate and account for existing stocks. "In its present shape UNSCOM cannot come back to Iraq," says Alain Dejammet, French representative to the UN. "What we are trying to do is to imagine a situation in which UNSCOM can come back to Iraq."

More contention over inspections

But the US opposes any dilution of UNSCOM's role and publicly supports intrusive inspections. "We do not believe that Iraq is disarmed," said Mr. Burleigh. "It appears that the French proposal makes that assumption."

Bahrain, which holds a seat on the Security Council, has offered some support to the British and American stance. "We cannot lift an oil embargo at 100 percent while the WMD [elimination of weapons of mass destruction] has not been achieved yet," says Ambassador Jassim Mohammed Buallay.

Mr. Dejammet said that France is not opposed to intrusive inspections or even an examination of existing weapons. The focus on preventive monitoring is simply a way to get inspectors back on the ground by allowing Baghdad a face-saving route, he argues. "If the commission finds something still exists, then surprise visits can still be done," he says.

France, Russia, and China have been pushing the UN to move toward a monitoring system for months. Yet current Security Council resolutions stipulate that sanctions be lifted and a long-term monitoring system be put in place only after weapons inspectors certify that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated. Now France and Russia argue that long-term monitoring is the only way to get back into Iraq and to have any sort of weapons control.

"It's a fact that the US and the UK killed UNSCOM with their missiles," says Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Saeed Hassan.

And neither the US nor Britain has a plan to resume UNSCOM's work. "UNSCOM still has a big part to play," British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock insists. But "any [inspection] regime must have Iraqi cooperation."

Iraqi cooperation appears increasingly elusive. In mid-January Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz wrote in a government newspaper that Kuwait's border is "a bombshell that may explode in the future." US officials say that sounds like the rhetoric coming out of Baghdad before it invaded its neighbor in 1990.

And even after American and British jets tangled with Iraqi forces several times in recent weeks, Baghdad has not backed down. "There is a way out of this. It is for the US and UK to change their position," says Iraq's Mr. Hassan.

That appears unlikely. Washington and London support UNSCOM, with Richard Butler as its executive chairman. Moscow, which has repeatedly called for Mr. Butler's resignation, wants to replace UNSCOM with a watered-down "monitoring center" staffed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The Security Council may not have to deal with the Butler situation. In a Sydney Morning Herald interview, the UNSCOM chief said he might leave his post when his term expires in June.

It might take that long for the 15 members to arrive at a consensus, some delegates say. "We have a long way to go," says British Ambassador Greenstock.

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