U.S., Russia differ over next step with Iraq

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

UNITED NATIONS -- The United States and Russia, divided by Iraq's surprise acceptance of weapons inspectors, clashed on Tuesday over whether to still confront Baghdad with new conditions or ultimatums.

"We have seen this game before," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said as he reaffirmed Washington's call for a tough anti-Iraq resolution by the U.N. Security Council.

But Russia's foreign minister said he saw no immediate need for new U.N. demands if the inspectors are quickly dispatched. He was backed up by Arab leaders, Moscow's traditional allies. The "logic of war" may now be replaced by "the logic of peace," said one.

The U.N. inspectors, meanwhile, moved ahead with arrangements for their return.

In the Middle East, the business of preparing for war went on, as American warplanes flew under aggressive new rules over Iraq, and U.S. commanders considered basing heavy bombers closer by.

At a U.N. news conference at which Powell and Russia's Igor Ivanov laid out conflicting views, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for them to stick together on Iraq.

This is "the beginning, not an end," he said. "We should try to maintain the unity of purpose that has emerged."

The 15 member nations of the Security Council then went into closed-door consultations on a timetable for dealing with the fast-changing Iraq issue.

The council majority decided, despite a U.S. request for more time, to quickly schedule a meeting, possibly Wednesday, with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to discuss practicalities of renewed inspections. The Americans, supported by Britain and Colombia, wanted first to prepare a new resolution, diplomats said.

The Security Council sent weapons inspectors into Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War, to ensure that President Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed any chemical or biological weapons it possessed, and any capacity to produce those or nuclear weapons.

The inspectors left in 1998, ahead of U.S. airstrikes, amid Iraqi allegations that some were spying for the United States and countercharges that Baghdad wasn't cooperating with the inspection teams.

Annan seeks unity

The international "unity of purpose" Annan cited emerged after President Bush, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last Thursday, forcefully called for the Security Council to threaten action against Iraq if it did not allow the inspectors back.

If the world body didn't act, Bush made clear, Washington would feel free to launch a military attack.

Bush's was the opening move in what may become a high-stakes diplomatic chess game.

Iraq's surprise reply came late Monday, in a letter to Annan in which Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said Baghdad would allow the inspectors back "without conditions" in order to "remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."

Blix then met with Iraqi representatives, after which the weapons inspection agency said talks on final arrangements for the return of inspectors would take place "and be concluded" at a meeting in Vienna during the week of Sept. 30.

Asked when the inspectors might actually return to Baghdad, Iraqi representative Saeed Hasan replied, "It depends on Mr. Blix's arrangements."

The secretary-general indicated he didn't believe any formal reauthorization is needed from the Security Council, whose previous resolutions set out specific conditions for their return.

The Bush administration late Monday had dismissed the Iraqi move as a ploy to split the Security Council. On Tuesday, Powell was equally dismissive.

"We cannot just take a one-and-a-quarter-page letter as the end of this matter," Powell told reporters.

He did not specify what Washington would seek in a new resolution -- a firm deadline, a threat of force or other tough elements. But he said the council should discuss an inspection plan and the "consequences" of an Iraqi failure to comply. The U.S. stresses the need for unrestricted access for inspectors.

Russia's Ivanov said it was important that Baghdad, which previously had sought an easing of anti-Iraq U.N. sanctions, had placed no preconditions on the inspectors' return.

"Whether we can trust this letter or not, I think that only facts alone can corrobrate this," he said. "We need to bring about the speedy return of inspectors to Iraq."

He said a new Security Council resolution is unneeded. "All the necessary resolutions, all the necessary decisions on that are" in existing council documents, he said.

Speaking for the European Union, the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Moeller, said the council should take up the question of whether Iraq's letter meets its demands. And meantime, he added on a skeptical note, "I would sleep with my eyes wide open and with my boots on."

Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso of Colombia, a Security Council member, also was skeptical, saying he believed additional pressure -- a deadline -- needed to be put on Iraq to ensure compliance.

Arab spokesmen were more positive.

Iraq's letter raises hopes that "the logic of war will finally be replaced by the logic of peace," Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said in an address to the General Assembly. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, said he saw no need for new resolutions. "The problem was weapons of mass destruction. Now we found a way to resume the inspections," he said.

Speaking to reporters, the Iraqi minister, Sabri, said he hoped for a "smooth" resumption of inspections, "with no pressures, no complications, so we can finish this job quickly." Certification of Iraqi disarmament would lead to a lifting of U.N. sanctions.

Military prepares

Out in the Middle East, meanwhile, the U.S. military prepared for possible confrontation.

The Pentagon disclosed it had ordered pilots, as they patrol Iraqi skies, to attack command and communications links in Iraq's anti-aircraft system. It also said it might base B-2 stealth bombers on Britain's Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia; that would halve their normal flight time from U.S. bases to Iraq. And the U.S. Navy said it was trying to contract a commercial ship to move military equipment to the Persian Gulf.

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