The Iraqi government late Monday appeared to edge away from a key element of a weapons-inspection accord it signed earlier in the day, even as President Clinton cautiously welcomed the agreement in Washington.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan signed the accord Monday morning with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz after three days of intense diplomacy. The U.N. leader then departed for New York to brief the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Hours later, however, the Iraqi government issued a statement declaring the accord would place time limits on U.N. inspections of “presidential sites.” Earlier, Annan said “categorically” there were no time limits or deadlines in the accord.
The diverging interpretations of the accord raised the possibility a threatened U.S.-led attack on Iraq might not be rescinded, since Clinton administration officials have insisted they would not accept any time limits or other restrictions on the activities of U.N. inspectors searching for suspected chemical and biological weapons.
A senior U.N. source in Baghdad, however, downplayed the importance of the Iraqi statement, saying he expected all five permanent members of the Security Council would back the accord and that Iraq would abide by the accord as written.
In Washington, a senior administration official, who requested anonymity, said he was not alarmed about the Iraqi News Agency report.
“Look, they don’t make major statements through the Iraqi News Agency. … They don’t say anything authoritative in that format. If Tariq Aziz said it somewhere in a statement or something, that would be a different deal.”
The official said the issue was “a heavily adjudicated part of the deal” and Iraq had sought time limits over the weekend but had not gotten them.
The new controversy over the accord arose after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein convened a meeting of his Revolutionary Command Council, the nation’s top decision-making body.
“The Iraqi leadership has decided to open all presidential sites to visitors, as has been the case before, expressing readiness through its representatives to give access to these locations, for a limited time, to a commission to be set up by the U.N. secretary-general,” the official Iraqi News Agency said.
The news agency issued the statement on its international wire, in both English and Arabic - suggesting that it was not made for a domestic audience only.
In response to the Iraqi declaration, a senior U.N. official said, “The accord clearly states Security Council resolutions are to be complied with in full and all sites - including presidential sites - will be open to immediate, unrestricted inspection.”
The official acknowledged the accord contains a formula for visits to sensitive Iraqi sites in which U.N. weapons inspectors would be accompanied by a team of diplomats. He said nothing in that formula appeared to conflict with U.N. resolutions requiring Iraq to provide “full and unfettered access” to any and all sites that the inspectors want to visit.
The Iraqi News Agency, quoting a statement by the Command Council, said Iraq’s opening of presidential sites “was made to unmask enemies’ lies these palaces, guest houses and resorts were holding proscribed weapons and chemical and biological plants.”
The statement also indicated Iraq does not recognize charges it had violated terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding “full and unfettered access” to all sites, calling those charges “lies intended to portray Iraq standing accused of dishonest and inaccurate dealing.”
At a joint press conference with Aziz before departing, Annan declined to discuss specifics of the accord but offered an interpretation that clearly conflicts with the Iraqi version.
“I can say categorically there are no time limits or deadlines in the agreement. Having said that, I think it is important we try to do our work within a reasonable period,” Annan said.
He added the agreement “is in conformity with the Security Council resolutions. It is in conformity in terms of spirit and in terms of the intent, and therefore I hope it will be acceptable to all members of the council.”
Although both the secretary-general and Aziz lauded the accord as a major step toward averting war, Aziz departed from the mutual tone of diplomatic cordiality to snipe at both the United States and Britain for their leading role in the Persian Gulf military buildup.
“When I was at the beginning of the crisis in New York in November, I made it quite clear the military buildup in the gulf does not scare the people and the leadership of Iraq,” Aziz said. “What helped in reaching this agreement … (was) the goodwill involved, not the American or the British buildup in the gulf and not the policy of saber-rattling.”
Annan quickly interjected, “You can do a lot with diplomacy, but of course you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up by firmness and force.”
The secretary-general and other U.N. officials said throughout the negotiations, Iraq made clear its expectation the schedule for lifting tough international economic sanctions would be accelerated as a result of its compliance regarding weapons inspections.
Aziz reiterated Iraq’s appeal on easing the sanctions, saying, “We are going to work together in good faith and cooperation, and we hope this humanitarian, legal … objective of lifting the sanctions will be done very soon.”