Iraq Talks Advance Haltingly U.N. Chief Sees Chance To Sway Saddam; Other Diplomatic Officials Less Optimistic

SUNDAY, FEB. 22, 1998

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed measured optimism Saturday after a day of long talks with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz aimed at averting an American air attack on Iraq.

But the success of Annan’s mission is likely to hinge on an anticipated face-to-face meeting today with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

An official, who asked not to be identified, said Annan told diplomats in a private briefing “he had a good chance to get the Iraqis on board.”

“He exuded optimism,” the official said of Annan. “He was quite jaunty. The man looked full of beans, full of energy, happy.”

Nevertheless, a member of the U.N. delegation, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, said the situation was “extremely polarized.” And a U.N. source close to the Annan-Aziz talks told Reuters he was not confident the two sides could resolve their differences.

“No, we are not confident. It’s up to Iraq,” the source said when asked if the United Nations believed Annan’s mission could be successful. Iraq’s official news agency described the talks as “difficult.”

In Washington, planning for a possible attack went forward Saturday as protesters demonstrated against the possible action outside the White House gates.

President Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger told reporters at the White House that military action could be averted only if Saddam agreed without condition to cooperate with United Nations inspectors seeking to destroy Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons.

Berger said Annan is aware that Iraq must meet two conditions to prevent U.S. military action: It must allow unconditional access to all sites and total control of the inspection process by UNSCOM, the U.N. Special Commission inspectors.

Berger did leave the door open slightly for a face-saving gesture. “There could be details that would not undermine those two objectives that we would not object to,” Berger said, without further explanation.

Meanwhile, the State Department urged Americans to leave Iraq and issued a special warning that journalists in that country could be in danger. White House spokesman Mike McCurry described the warnings as routine.

Clinton met with his top foreign policy advisers for more than 90 minutes at the White House.

Several hundred people protesting the possible military action marched through Washington to a park facing the White House Saturday afternoon. They chanted “No more war” and carried a banner that said “Do not bomb Iraq.”

“Clearly whenever there is military action it provokes and evokes strong feelings on the part of many people,” Berger said.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican leader in Congress and a former Vietnam prisoner of war, said President Clinton should go on national television to tell the American people if an attack is likely and warn them about possible casualties. McCain spoke Saturday afternoon on Evans and Novak, a CNN interview show.

In Baghdad, Annan spoke with reporters in an ornate pink-stucco Iraqi government guest house. He said after his talks Saturday afternoon - the third session since the secretary-general’s arrival Friday evening - that the meetings “started well,” but that “we still have a lot of work to do.”

Interviewed on Iraqi television, Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, described the atmosphere of the talks as “constructive.”

But the critical encounter will come today when Annan expects to meet with the unpredictable Iraqi leader himself.

Today is also Annan’s self-imposed deadline for finding a solution with Iraq over allowing U.N. weapons inspectors access to eight “presidential sites.”

The crisis has erupted in the last several months after Iraq refused to allow U.N. teams to enter the compounds because it says they are sovereign sites, off-limits to any outside group. The United States, and U.N. weapons inspectors, believe that sites declared off limits by the Iraqis may contain biological or chemical weapons. Iraq denies it.

As Annan’s peace mission unfolded, the United States continued its buildup of troops, mostly in neighboring Kuwait. America now has about 25,000 military personnel on bases and aboard two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region. About 3,000 more were expected to arrive in the coming days.

If Annan fails to win Iraqi concessions on the inspection sites, observers in Baghdad, and elsewhere, expect that an American bombing attack could begin soon after Annan arrives back in New York and reports to the United Nations Security Council. He is expected to arrive at the U.N. Tuesday.

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