President Saddam Hussein agreed Sunday to lift his ban on arms inspections at presidential properties, a U.N. spokesman said, defusing a crisis that brought the United States to the brink of another attack on Iraq.
The agreement, which took final shape after a three-hour meeting between the Iraqi president and U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, could avert American bombing of Iraq and recharge the arms inspection process. Iraq gave up - at least temporarily - most of its demands, including a time limit on inspections of presidential sites.
Clinton administration officials will now study the accord, but U.N. officials are optimistic that it will meet Washington’s requirement. “The secretary general expects that it will be acceptable to the Security Council - all 15 members,” said Fred Eckhard, Annan’s spokesman. He said that the accord was likely to be signed this morning, before Annan returns to New York to present the document to the Security Council on Tuesday.
Annan and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who led the Iraqi team in most of the talks, were scheduled to hold a news conference after the signing.
No details of the agreement will be revealed publicly until Annan meets the Security Council, officials said here. But the accord apparently makes some changes in the methods of conducting inspections of presidential sites - a concession to Iraq.
Furthermore, only a small number of sites belonging to Saddam and his entourage appear to be covered definitively by this agreement. Some diplomats say that it could be barely a matter of weeks before inspectors again run into problems of access to areas beyond these eight formally designated “presidential sites.”
The agreement apparently does not address the issue of other presidential properties not among the eight listed by Baghdad, including numerous palaces that the U.N. Special Commission, which is responsible for disarming Iraq, identified as suspect weapons areas or places where crucial documents may be hidden.
Iraq did not define these sites until January of this year and then said that they would never be opened to inspections. The Security Council has demanded that all locations be open at all times.
And lurking in the background are dormant Iraqi threats to end cooperation with inspections this spring if there is not more movement toward the lifting of the comprehensive sanctions under which Iraq has lived for seven and a half years.
Nevertheless, Eckhard said that the agreement fulfills the two major objectives of Annan’s diplomatic mission: to cement compliance with all Security Council resolutions on Iraq and to preserve the leading role of the U.N. Special Commission. The Clinton administration has been concerned that the power of the council and the commission, known as UNSCOM, was being eroded under a barrage of Iraqi acts of defiance.
Saddam gave up a major demand after his meeting with Annan. Until the last minute, the Iraqi president had insisted that if he opened the off-limits presidential sites to inspectors, there would be a 60-day limit on access to those locations.
Sunday morning, U.N. officials were calling this issue a potential “deal-breaker” and feared that it could sink hopes for an agreement.
U.N. officials - and Security Council members - view that demand as unacceptable, although Russian and French diplomats had earlier seemed inclined to accept a time limit. It was only after Moscow and Paris changed their positions on that issue last week that Annan felt he could come to Iraq with solid Security Council backing.
Annan’s meeting with Saddam on Sunday, his first direct encounter with the reclusive Iraqi leader, was shrouded in the secrecy under which the Iraqi always lives.
Just before noon, three black Mercedes cars pulled up at the extravagantly glitzy guest house where the secretary general has been staying and whisked him and his small party away to an unknown destination. It turned out to be the Republican Palace, a huge walled compound of many buildings - the kind of place arms inspectors believe almost anything could be hidden.
Annan was accompanied to the rendezvous by the U.N. legal counsel, Han Corell, who has been instrumental in drawing up the agreement with Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who has been an emissary of Annan to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rolf Knutsson, a political adviser.
Just over three hours later, the party returned through the back door of the guest house. Annan declined to meet with reporters.
The secretary general’s three days of meetings with Aziz and the full Iraqi delegation were “civilized but also difficult,” a U.N. official said. “There was no table thumping, no raised voices.”
Annan’s party seems to be acutely conscious of the hostility that has been growing between Iraq and UNSCOM, whose inspectors are neither diplomats nor U.N. employees. Some officials suggest that a new policy will be needed on the conduct of searches.
For more than a year, as UNSCOM got closer to the last and possibly most embarrassing weapons caches or military production sites, Iraq has made wounded sensitivities and offended dignity into tactics in its efforts to be free of inspections. American officials have been fearful that any effort to conduct investigations on Iraq’s terms rather than those of the inspectors would weaken the disarmament effort.