Iraq has indicated it will allow U.S. weapons inspectors to return to the country, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said today after an emergency middle-of the night meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Albright said the United States made no concession to Iraq to gain its agreement.
There was no immediate word from Iraq, but Albright said she understood an announcement would come later today from Baghdad.
“We expect that today, Iraq will make a decision that absolutely all the inspectors, without any exceptions, will return to Iraq and will begin to work there normally,” Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov told reporters as he left to catch a plane for Brazil.
“That’s what Russia achieved … without any use of violence, any use of weapons, without a show of force. It was achieved through diplomatic means,” Primakov said.
Primakov briefed Albright and their counterparts from France and Britain, plus a Chinese representative, about his government’s proposal for ending the three-week crisis over weapons inspections.
Albright, speaking at an early morning news conference, indicated she is skeptical of Iraq’s intentions.
“We have to wait to see if it’s carried out,” she said. “I will believe it when I see it.”
In a joint statement read by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, the diplomats said they hoped the Russian initiative would lead to Baghdad’s unconditional compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
They gave no indication of bending to Iraq’s demands for a reduction in the number of Americans on U.N. weapons inspection teams. They noted however, that the U.N. special commission responsible for the inspections would meet Friday in New York to review its work.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said he regarded that reference as a very important U.S. move.
Vedrine said the plan involves an “enormous” movement by Iraq on unconditionally complying with U.N. resolutions and an “American opening.”
Asked by reporters whether this represented any change in the U.S. position on weapons inspections, Albright noted that some U.N. member countries have suggested that more inspectors be added.
“We believe that UNSCOM is working effectively, that it does its job, that it needs to get back on the ground working,” she said.
The statement of solidarity hid deep differences over whether military action should be used to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein into compliance. France, China and Russia oppose the use of military force.
In Washington, President Clinton said anew that the United States wants a peaceful solution to the crisis but that Iraq could set no conditions on the inspectors. “That’s our top line, that’s our bottom line,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov invited Albright and the foreign ministers of France and Britain to this traditionally neutral city to detail a plan he worked out with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz for resolving the latest crisis in the Persian Gulf.
“A certain program has been worked out that allows us, we think, to avoid … a confrontation, to avoid the use of force and achieve a settlement,” he said.
Even as Clinton strengthened American military power in the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials encouraged Russia and France to use their influence with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Defense Secretary William Cohen planned to visit the United Nations today and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Cohen’s spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said Cohen had been scheduled to be in New York on other business and felt it would be useful to hold a “broad discussion about the Iraqis.”
“He is not going up there with any particular plan” for settling the crisis, Bacon said Wednesday evening.
Saddam expelled Americans serving on U.N. teams of inspectors seeking to ensure that Iraq was not producing or stockpiling weapons of mass destructions. The United Nations responded by withdrawing all weapons inspectors from the country, leaving only a skeletal staff in place.
Iraq has charged that the American inspectors were spies. It also has threatened to shoot down U.S. planes on surveillance flights, but two flights have been made without incident since the crisis began.
Albright, Primakov, Cook and Vedrine met at the United Nations’ European headquarters, the Palais des Nations, built in the 1930s as the world headquarters of the organization’s predecessor, the League of Nations.
Primakov has conferred by telephone with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, and Qian sent a Geneva-based ambassador to represent China at the meeting.
Russia all along has sought to avert a military strike on Iraq, much as Primakov tried unsuccessfully to stop the Bush administration in 1991 from attacking Iraq after the occupation of Kuwait.
The British have sided with the Clinton administration, which has reserved all its options, including military ones.