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U.N. Launches Peace Quest Warm Welcome, High Hopes As Secretary-General To Meet Saddam

Sat., Feb. 21, 1998

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived here Friday to a warm Iraqi welcome amid high hopes that he can coax Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. resolutions and avoid a military confrontation.

“I’m reasonably optimistic that we will find a peaceful solution,” Annan said as he arrived at the Saddam Hussein International Airport. “I hope I will leave Iraq with a package that will be acceptable to all.”

With U.S. warships and warplanes poised to strike, the 59-year-old Ghanan diplomat planned to meet with Saddam this afternoon or Sunday.

Annan, after meeting with Aziz Friday, agreed to stay in Baghdad until Monday to discuss Iraq’s oil-for-food deal with the United Nations, Annan’s spokesman said.

“The secretary-general will stay over on Monday,” Fred Eckhard told a news conference, adding that Aziz had expressed the Iraqi government’s interest in discussing the oil-for-food deal.

“I share the optimism of the secretary-general about the outcome,” said Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz who, dressed in an olive-green army uniform, greeted Annan.

Those encouraging words and recent Iraqi cooperation with U.N. technicians seemed to create the right atmosphere for a visit that many say is the last best chance to avoid crippling U.S. air strikes that could inflame the Persian Gulf region.

Meanwhile, other events outside Iraq added to the urgency. The United States advised the families of American diplomats to leave neighboring Kuwait and Israel, and 750 more troops arrived in Kuwait to bolster that country’s defense.

Despite the growing momentum, Annan said he was “reasonably optimistic” he could pull the Persian Gulf back from the brink of war.

It is Annan’s first trip to Baghdad since a few months after the Gulf War in 1991. That was the year another secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, made a disastrous trip to Iraq.

Perez de Cuellar came to Baghdad to defuse the showdown over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait but was rebuked by a defiant Hussein. The Gulf War started days later.

Annan risks a similar rejection.

He is here to urge Hussein to allow United Nations weapons inspectors unrestricted access to Iraq, as the country agreed to in 1991, after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi soldiers from neighboring Kuwait.

While weapons inspectors have found and destroyed more than 100,000 gallons of chemical and biological weapons ingredients and almost all of Hussein’s long-range missiles, they suspect him of hiding more.

Late Friday, U.N. officials said a survey of the eight most controversial sites showed a total area of about 12 square miles, less than had been estimated. Eckhard said the secretary-general thought Iraq’s cooperation in the survey had been “significant.”

Also, Friday night, Annan met with Aziz, moving up a meeting that had been planned for this morning. Eckhard declined to discuss the meeting.

The events appeared to indicate that Iraq is softening its opposition to spot inspections of the sites, which they have said would be like ceding its sovereignty to the United Nations. The Iraqis accuse the weapons inspectors of a pro-U.S. bias.

As a result, the United States has mounted a four-month military build-up that threatens to bring air strikes on Iraq if Hussein does not comply. Though Arab world support has been cool, two U.S. and one British aircraft carrier are maneuvering in the nearby Persian Gulf and thousands of troops have begun arriving in Kuwait from Fort Stewart, Ga., bolstering the more than 25,000 servicemen already in the region.

The damage from the war and seven years of economic sanctions are evident around the Iraqi capital - airplane wreckage, food shortages and an omnipresent layer of rust on any kind of machinery.

But, Annan’s trip comes amid hopeful signs he could succeed where Perez de Cuellar failed.

Iraqis were heartened even by the location of Annan’s arrival.

With most of the country under U.N. prohibitions against air travel, United Nations planes usually land at a military air base. But, Friday, Annan’s plane became the fifth flight to land at Saddam Hussein International in seven years.

There were other signs of hope closer to the negotiations.

A senior U.N. official confirmed that Iraq allowed a team of map makers complete access to eight presidential palaces. Unexpectedly, they also allowed weapons inspectors to accompany the map-making team.

Annan had asked for the maps in an effort to size up what was on the sprawling presidential palace compounds. A report was given to Annan Thursday, but the results have not been released.

The U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Annan had the same “bottom line” as the security council members, that Iraq must abide by its agreements.

However, he said Annan is not just “an actor who is going to read a script prepared by the security council.”

That appeared intended to allay the suspicions of many Iraqis who say the U.N. is merely a puppet of the United States.

Further, the official said Annan is trying to avoid a debacle like Perez de Cuellar’s trip in 1991.

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