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Top Weapons Inspector Backs Iraq Agreement Ending His Silence, U.N.’S Butler Joins Albright In Supporting Deal

Breaking his silence on the deal, U.N. chief weapons inspector Richard Butler on Thursday welcomed the new inspections accord reached with Iraq and described clarifications worked out with U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan over the past three days as “totally satisfactory.”

But behind the scenes, U.S. and U.N. officials said they still have grave reservations about how the deal will be implemented.

“The arrangements are entirely satisfactory to the organization I lead,” said Butler, the Australian diplomat who heads the U.N. commission established to ferret out and destroy Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs.

Speaking at a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, Butler added: “It gives us new resources. It gives us access to sites that Iraq said were absolutely off limits.”

Despite the lingering doubts others have, Butler and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joined Annan in defending the deal that the secretary-general reached with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein last weekend.

The defense of the pact came amid a crescendo of criticism from Capitol Hill.

“In the last 48 hours, some have jumped to conclusions about the agreement, and I must say … that it will be very clear that those conclusions have turned out to be wrong,” Albright told reporters at the State Department. “If Ambassador Butler … is able to carry out his duties, then I think that we should understand that we are really better off than we were.”

Albright added a significant caveat to her endorsement: The agreement must be tested soon to determine whether Hussein will keep the pledges he made to Annan.

“If this does not work, then the whole world will have seen Saddam Hussein renege on an agreement that he made,” she said. “And we will have support for using other methods, and military force, to make sure that his weapons-of-mass-destruction threat is diminished and that he can’t threaten his neighbors.”

Albright insisted that Gulf War allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey would have provided needed assistance if the United States had gone through with a bombing campaign against Iraq. “The Arab countries were much more supportive than was evident,” she said. “The Arab leaders themselves are in the neighborhood with the bully, and therefore they are less likely to be vocal publicly.”

Critics - mostly Republican lawmakers - challenged Albright’s assertions, arguing that the U.N. weapons inspection system was weakened by the Annan-Hussein agreement and insisting that the Clinton administration has allowed the 1991 Gulf War coalition to disintegrate, leaving Washington with few significant allies.

“We’ve just concluded the second Gulf War, and we lost without firing a shot,” Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., told Albright during a Senate subcommittee hearing. “We’ve undermined the sovereignty of this country by allowing the U.N. to broker the deal, and now we’re … not getting too much support from our allies.”

Annan launched his own effort to defend the agreement. In a letter, he urged U.N. staff members not to be disheartened by criticism.

Butler apparently overcame his own doubts about the deal during a long meeting with Annan on Wednesday, sources familiar with the thinking of the chief weapons inspector said.

At the session, held at Annan’s residence, Butler reinforced a message pressed earlier by the United States that the existing weapons inspection commission must have the chief authority and that diplomats who now will escort weapons inspectors should not be allowed to meddle in the inspections themselves.

Annan gave Butler guarantees that he would remain in control of the inspection process. He was also assured that the diplomats would escort, not inspect.