President Clinton cautiously welcomed Iraq’s agreement Monday to admit United Nations weapons inspectors, but he warned that if Saddam Hussein breaks his word again, America might act on its own.
“I believe if it (Iraq) does not keep its word this time, everyone would understand that then the United States - and, hopefully, all of our allies - would have the unilateral right to respond at a time, place and manner of our own choosing,” Clinton said.
The president said he has ordered U.S. military forces to remain on alert in the Persian Gulf “until we are satisfied that Iraq is complying with its commitments.” If Iraq does not, Clinton said, “there will be serious consequences.”
Clinton spoke to the nation Monday afternoon in a brief televised address from the Oval Office. He welcomed Iraq’s “written commitment” to permit the resumption of United Nations inspections but emphasized that “what really matters is Iraq’s compliance, not its stated commitments; not what Iraq says, but what it does. In the days and weeks ahead, UNSCOM must test and verify,” he said, referring to the U.N. Special Commission that oversees Iraqi weapons inspection.
U.N. officials in New York who asked to remain anonymous said UNSCOM plans to begin testing the agreement as early as next week, when UNSCOM chief Richard Butler will return to Iraq. Butler’s inspectors will quickly fan out across Iraq and begin “intrusive” inspections of Saddam’s presidential palaces and other sensitive sites.
The two-page Memorandum of Understanding between the United Nations and Iraq, signed Monday in Baghdad by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, calls for the creation of a “Special Group” comprised of senior diplomats appointed by Annan and experts from UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency. This Special Group, the Memorandum says, will oversee inspections of the eight “presidential sites” that Iraq had tried to declare off-limits.
But the Memorandum says the eight sites and all others still are subject to unrestricted U.N. inspections. If Iraq interferes with any of the inspections, the U.N. officials said, the United States is expected to declare the agreement dead and launch a military operation.
For now, though, President Clinton’s acceptance of the accord has spared Iraq the massive U.S.-led bombing campaign that had appeared imminent. Annan will present the accord today to the U.N. Security Council for approval, and a senior U.S. official who reviewed the text of the agreement on Monday told Knight Ridder that the deal meets Washington’s demands.
Iraq pledged to open all sites suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction to U.N. weapons inspectors without any conditions - just as it did seven years ago at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Since then, however, Iraq repeatedly has interfered with the inspectors, and Baghdad’s refusal since last October to admit U.N. inspectors to more than 60 suspect sites provoked the recent confrontation.
In Baghdad, relief was palpable Monday.
Although many people still feared U.S. bombs might fall, one merchant rehung paintings she had taken down in fear of an attack. A family unloaded the car they had packed for escape to the countryside. And many shared the joy voiced by a woman named Frial, 31, whose family had planned to flee the city.
“I am the happiest girl in the world today,” Frial said. “One week ago, we all said we didn’t care if they bombed, that we were living in a war anyway with sanctions. But we found out we really were afraid of the bombs.”
On Capitol Hill, powerful Republicans warned that the U.N.-brokered deal might tie Clinton’s hands politically the next time Saddam provokes a crisis - and few doubt that there will be a next time.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he had feared the U.N. initiative “was going to put the president in a box, and that’s exactly what’s happened.” Lott said he fears that even if Clinton believes the accord is unsatisfactory, its acceptance by the rest of the world will make any U.S. action against Iraq very difficult.
“I guess this is the bottom line,” Lott said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about what has happened, where we are, and what is the long-term plan? I still don’t see that this administration has a plan to deal with this continuing problem.”
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen are scheduled to testify today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where they are expected to answer such concerns.
The Memorandum of Understanding between Iraq and the U.N. suggests that Iraq’s next move might be a push to lift the U.N. economic sanctions that have cost the country more than $100 billion in oil revenues since they were imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The Memorandum declares that: “The lifting of sanctions is obviously of paramount importance to the people and Government of Iraq,” and says Annan “undertook to bring this matter to the full attention of the members of the Security Council.” If Iraq cooperates with U.N. inspectors, Annan said in Baghdad, “we will be seeing light at the end of the tunnel” for lifting the sanctions.
But Lott and other critics of the administration’s policy stressed that the United States should oppose any move to end the sanctions.
The executive director of UNSCOM must certify that Iraq has made a full and final accounting of its weapons of mass destruction before the U.N. Security Council can begin debating whether to lift the sanctions. And given Saddam’s pattern of trying to conceal his biological and chemical weapons, a final accounting may be hard to come by.
Noting Iraq’s “written commitment,” Clinton said that if the new agreement is “fully implemented- and that is the big ‘if’ - this commitment will allow UNSCOM to fulfill its mission: First, to find and destroy all of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Second, to find and destroy the missiles to deliver those weapons. And third, to institute a system for long-term monitoring to make sure Iraq does not build more.”
Nevertheless, Arabs generally see this showdown as an unequivocal victory for Saddam, who triggered the latest confrontation while he was still in deep diplomatic isolation, with a devastated army and an impoverished population.
Now he has split the United States from many of its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf; opened divisions between America and its fellow U.N. Security Council powers Russia, China and France; sparked anti-war protests in the United States and across the world; inflamed Arab resentment of America’s willingness to overlook Israeli violations of U.N. accords; and gained new sympathizers for his campaign to dismantle the U.N. economic sanctions.