Russia and Iraq have drafted a proposal to end the standoff between the United States and Saddam Hussein, Russia’s foreign minister said Tuesday evening.
Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister, said the plan would allow the United Nations to carry out weapons inspections, presumably with the participation of Americans. But at the same time, he said, the inspectors’ open-ended search for chemical, nuclear and biological weapons should be brought to a speedy conclusion.
Primakov did not spell out details, but he outlined how Iraq might achieve its long-sought goal of ending the crippling economic sanctions imposed after the Persian Gulf War.
The discussions opened with the blessing of the United States, which hoped Primakov could find a face-saving way for Saddam to back down. But his proposal raised serious questions even in its bare outlines as it seemed to call for a softening of American policy on Iraq.
Clinton administration officials in Washington said Tuesday night they did not know enough about the proposal to react to it, although Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke by telephone with Primakov on Tuesday.
The United States proceeded with a slow military buildup in the Persian Gulf area, including the dispatch of six F-117A “stealth” fighters and six B-52 bombers to beef up American striking power. President Clinton has also authorized the deployment of about 30 additional fighters and bombers if American military commanders conclude they are needed.
The Pentagon said that an American U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over Iraq on Tuesday without incident. But the Pentagon’s spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said on Tuesday that Saddam was moving around his air defenses in the south in a way that could be threatening, adding, “We think he is interested in much more than diplomacy.”
Pentagon officials said that Iraq appears to be setting up its surface-to-air missile batteries to “trap” allied patrols of the no-flight zones, a tactic the Iraqis have used before.
For six years, the United States has insisted that the terms under which President George Bush stopped the war with Iraq in 1991 are not negotiable. It has never been willing to set deadlines for completing the inspections or to put any restrictions on the United Nations’ demands.
The United Nations has insisted the sanctions remain in effect until the inspectors certify that Iraq has destroyed its missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Saddam must also meet other demands, including the return of Kuwaiti prisoners of war and paying reparations to Kuwait for the 1990 invasion.
The weapons inspectors have attributed the slow pace of their work to an elaborate effort by Baghdad to conceal its armaments and destroy weapons. The head of the U.N. team said that Baghdad stepped up those efforts in the days since the inspectors were expelled.
Primakov made his televised announcement after President Boris Yeltsin met with the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. In making the announcement, Primakov boasted that he had found the diplomatic solution that has eluded the United States, France, Britain and the United Nations. He made the same claim shortly before the start of the Persian Gulf War, but the allies against Iraq swiftly rejected his ideas.
On Tuesday night, Primakov said: “As a result of these talks, a specific program has been worked out which, we believe, allows us to avoid military confrontation and the use of military methods, and to move toward resolving the crisis.”
Primakov engaged in intensive diplomacy before the Persian Gulf War, as Moscow sought to dissuade Washington from its offensive to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. As a special envoy, he shuttled from Moscow to Washington to Baghdad. Primakov even traveled to the Iraqi capital in a camouflaged car during American bombing raids and later glorified his exploits in a three-part series for Pravda, the now defunct Soviet newspaper.
The Bush administration viewed Primakov’s diplomacy at the time as a transparent effort to help the regime of Saddam Hussein preserve its military might and hold on to power.
But this time the situation is different. Neither the Clinton administration nor its allies in Western Europe and the Middle East are eager to use force. The goal is not to evict an occupying Iraqi army from Kuwait but to persuade Baghdad to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to work unfettered.
Nor does Iraq seem determined to fight. Unlike in the Persian Gulf war, its goal is not to annex a neighboring state but to bring a quick end to U.N. weapon inspections, create divisions between the United States and its allies and force the termination of economic sanctions.
American officials remain suspicious of Russian intentions, but this time they appear willing to let Moscow play the role of mediator if it can deliver Iraqi concessions.
Primakov said he wants to meet in Geneva on Wednesday with Albright, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and French Foreign Minister Hubert Verdrine to go over the details.
Albright dropped plans for a side trip in India but has no immediate plans to fly to Geneva, a spokesman said.
Not only would the logistics be difficult, but American officials also seem wary of putting themselves in a position where they would be pressured to go along with a plan that remains somewhat vague.
By all accounts, the details of the Russian-Iraqi plan are critical.
A senior administration official said that the proposal appeared not to be in final form yet. He said that it was possible that Russia was attempting a last-minute intervention that could interfere with American policy. “Is there a possibility of that? Absolutely. But I’m not too concerned about it, because the answer will just be no,” the official said.