The United Nations announced Tuesday it is postponing U-2 surveillance flights over Iraq this week while U.N. mediators try to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to cooperate with weapons inspectors.
Earlier Tuesday, Iraq agreed to suspend its plans to expel American members of the U.N. weapons inspection team while a three-member mediation mission is in Baghdad and until after the U.N. Security Council reviews the issue next week.
The chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, said in a statement Tuesday that he had decided to postpone the U-2 flights scheduled for today through Friday while the mission is in Iraq.
Butler, who said the decision was in response to a request from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said the flights are to resume next week.
In Washington, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the United States stands by the importance of the flights, undertaken to determine if Iraq is hiding nuclear and chemical weapons.
“The U-2 flights will continue and will continue at a time determined by the United Nations,” he said. “The world community will have the information it needs.”
On Sunday, Iraq’s U.N. ambassador warned Butler that it would be risky to fly the American aircraft over the country during a period when Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners were on alert.
The United States interpreted that as a threat to shoot down the planes, which fly surveillance missions in support of U.N. weapons inspection programs.
In Washington on Tuesday, President Clinton warned Saddam it would be “a big mistake” to try to shoot down American U-2 planes.
In his first public comments on the escalating tensions with Baghdad, Clinton urged that efforts be redoubled to end the crisis through diplomacy. But the administration made clear that it is not backing down.
Defense Secretary William Cohen warned of “serious consequences” if any U.S. planes are attacked, and Clinton also expressed determination to prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqis have been preventing American members of the U.N. inspection teams from entering suspected weapons sites, prompting the United Nations to call off inspections that had been set for Monday and Tuesday.
Annan said he believes the United Nations still will attempt to carry out inspections with all team members, including Americans.
“Threats and counterthreats are not conducive to these kinds of negotiations,” Annan told reporters. “So I appeal to everyone to restrain themselves and give the process a chance.”
The three-member U.N. mediation team, made up of diplomats from Algeria, Argentina and Sweden, is due in Baghdad today to urge the Iraqis to rescind their expulsion order and comply with U.N. resolutions requiring that they cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. The Security Council had warned of “serious consequences” if the expulsions are carried out.
The United Nations also wants the three envoys to tell Iraq to allow U-2 flights over Iraq to continue without interference.
The envoys are expected to return to New York this weekend and brief the Security Council on Monday.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard announced the Iraqi decision to suspend the expulsion order on Tuesday but said only that Annan had been assured the Americans could stay as long as the emissaries are in Baghdad.
But it appears the agreement with the Iraqis goes beyond that and that the United Nations had arranged a deal in which Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz would come to New York to argue his government’s case personally before the Security Council.
Although the U.N. announcement made no mention of Aziz’s visit, Annan confirmed that the Iraqi official would return to New York with the envoys.