December 1, 1997 in Nation/World

Top Weapons Inspector Will Visit Iraq Tensions Rise Again As U.N. Vote On Oil-For-Food Agreement Approaches

Elsa C. Arnett Knight-Ridder

Ten days after the crisis in Iraq was defused, the United States finds itself in a renewed standoff with no signs of a resolution.

Differing approaches to the impasse will be tested this week, when the United Nations dispatches the head of its weapons-inspection team to meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad. At the same time, the United Nations is expected to vote on increasing humanitarian aid to Iraq.

With the failure of last month’s Russian-brokered agreement to truly end the dispute, Middle East experts say the situation needs to be resolved quickly. If it lingers, they say, Iraq would have even more time to develop and conceal its chemical and biological weapons.

Hoping to gain unfettered access to more than 60 suspected weapons sites, the United Nations announced Sunday that Richard Butler, head of the U.N. weapons inspection team, will go to Baghdad later this week.

“It will be very interesting what (Iraq’s) reaction to him is,” said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard. “It will be a test of Iraq’s attitudes towards the Security Council’s resolutions.”

Ironically, while American officials hope to step up diplomatic and military pressure on Iraq, the United Nations this week will consider whether to ease some of its economic pressures.

Today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to announce his recommendations on how to alter a program that permits Iraq to sell $2 billion of oil every six months, with the revenue used to buy food, medicine and other necessities for its people.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Annan said, “Down the line, it will be necessary for us to increase the amount of oil sold so that we can bring a better basket of food to the Iraqi people.”

Annan said his recommendations will be based solely on humanitarian considerations.

Bill Richardson, the United States’ chief delegate to the United Nations, said the United States is willing to consider improving provisions of the oil-for-food program to help the Iraqi people.

Still, Richardson said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the United States will continue using diplomatic means to try to gain unconditional access to sensitive sites. “If that doesn’t work,” Richardson added, “we’re not ruling any other options out. That’s why we have that (military) presence in the Persian Gulf.”

These mixed signals show that while the U.S. and its allies are demanding unconditional compliance from Saddam Hussein, another period of negotiation and diplomacy appears inevitable.

“We’re suddenly realizing that we didn’t get the crisis resolved as we thought we did, and now we’re actually realizing we’ve got a big problem,” said Kenneth Pollack, a Persian Gulf analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

“Each passing day that the inspectors are kept out of these sites is a mark against the United States and a little victory for Saddam,” Pollack said.

That’s because time is against the United States.

“The longer this goes on, the more the Iraqis could move equipment or materials in the dead of the night to some undisclosed location or to some bunker in the middle of the desert,” said Jonathan Tucker, a former biological weapons inspector who examined sites in Iraq in 1995.

Middle East experts say the Clinton administration now must decide if it wants to end the latest standoff quickly, or have it become a problem that drags on for months. Some believe that Saddam has emerged stronger from his latest skirmish, and the United States might have to offer some concessions.

The administration first must determine what its priorities are, said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, Monterey, Calif.

“We are pursuing multiple objectives: We want to remove Saddam, eradicate his weapons of mass destruction, keep a (U.N. inspection team) presence in Iraq, and maintain sanctions,” Potter said.

But, he said, eradicating the weapons of mass destruction, which includes gaining unimpeded access to sensitive sites, getting a full accounting of the Iraqi’s weapons program, and retaining monitoring rights in the country, should be the priority.

If necessary, Potter said, the United States might have to give Iraq a definite date on when it will lift the economic sanctions, which have helped cripple the economy over the past seven years.

Edward Peck, a former American ambassador to Mauritania, who also served as chief of the U.S. mission in Iraq between 1977-80, agreed.

“We are all alone on this one; the world sees us as punishing the Iraqi people. They see us a big bully,” Peck said. “We have to talk to the Iraqis, and we may have to set a definite date for the lifting of the embargo.”

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