The United States proposed tightening economic sanctions against Iraq and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz personally argued his country’s case at the United Nations against the world body’s disarmament officials on Monday as Washington and Baghdad exchanged outbursts of bellicose rhetoric.
A potential flash point in the dispute passed peacefully, however, when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane on loan to the United Nations spent about four hours patrolling Iraqi airspace without drawing anti-aircraft fire. In the days leading up to Monday’s flight, Iraq had said it would fire on the plane and the United States had threatened to retaliate.
According to officials in Baghdad, the aircraft flew beyond the range of Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles. U.N. officials declined to discuss the flight plan or Baghdad’s account of the mission and said additional flights by the U-2 remain “under consideration” despite continued threats by the Iraqis to bring it down.
In Washington, President Clinton welcomed the safe flight and added that “the next step is to get a very strong resolution from the United Nations manifesting the determination of the international community” to force Iraq to back down.
At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson and other U.S. officials began rounding up support for such a resolution by the Security Council. The measure would condemn Iraq, impose travel restrictions on high-level Iraqi officials and warn of further “serious measures” unless the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein resumes cooperation with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, which was set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to supervise the elimination of Iraq’s ability to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Iraq has blocked the commission’s weapons inspections since Oct. 29, when Baghdad vowed to expel all Americans working for the commission in Iraq and demanded a halt to the U-2 flights. The United Nations has refused to bow to the Iraqi ultimatum.
The proposed Security Council resolution reflects the U.S. strategy of gradually turning up the pressure against Iraq, beginning with tightened sanctions in the form of travel restrictions. But the Americans will proceed cautiously, hoping to get the unanimous backing of the 15-member council. Russia and France have been critical of Iraq’s position, but reluctant to publicly endorse new sanctions or military force.
The Americans began circulating their proposal after the council heard from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and three special envoys he sent to Baghdad last week in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Hussein to change his policy. Annan said that despite the rejection he remained hopeful that the Iraqis will change their minds.
There was no sign of retreat Monday from Aziz, who arrived in New York to present what he called Iraq’s “grievances and suffering” at the hands of the U.N. disarmament commission.
Aziz had private meetings with Annan, Chinese Ambassador Huasun Qin, who is president of the Security Council this month, and Sergei V. Lavrov, the ambassador from Russia, one of the countries believed to have the most influence with Iraq. He was lobbying for an opportunity to address the council and challenge assertions by Richard Butler, the Australian who heads the weapons inspectors, that Iraq is covering up biological and chemical weapons programs.
Aziz repeated to reporters claims that the commission is a puppet of the United States and a cover for American espionage.