Rekindling a smoldering confrontation with the United States and its allies, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared Monday that Iraq will block arms inspections by a U.N. team led by an American, a step President Clinton described as a “clear and serious” breach of the Gulf War cease-fire.
Clinton predicted the U.N. Security Council would take “strong and appropriate action” if Iraq carries out its threat.
The official Iraqi News Agency said Iraq will ban a team led by former U.S. Marine Scott Ritter starting Tuesday because it considers him to be a U.S. spy and his team includes too many Americans. The agency said other U.N. inspectors would be allowed to operate.
A similar Iraqi threat in November touched off a crisis that eventually was papered over by Russian diplomacy. The United States at the time launched a military build-up in the region and insisted it would keep all options open - including the use of military force.
On Monday, White House spokesman Mike McCurry warned: “We have a very significant force deployed in the region in furtherance of the president’s determination to see that the United States can pursue its objectives.”
He reminded reporters that Iraq has often backed down from similar confrontations.
“You’ve seen them try to provoke a response from the international community in the past,” McCurry said.
The Iraqi government spokesman said Ritter’s team - with nine Americans, five Britons, a Russian and an Australian - will not be allowed to continue until it is reformed in a balanced manner. U.N. officials said Ritter’s team will be augmented by other inspectors based in Baghdad so the full list will include 44 inspectors from 17 countries.
“Saddam Hussein shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who does this work,” Clinton told reporters in an unrelated White House event.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Iraq to withdraw its ultimatum until Richard Butler, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, visits Baghdad next week.
Butler, head of the U.N. special commission charged with scrapping Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, is expected in Baghdad Monday. Some U.S. officials had expected Saddam to provoke a new crisis after his visit; Saddam’s latest action was surprising only in its timing.
Iraq insists that it has already complied with the U.N. resolutions demanding that it dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. But Butler’s U.N. inspectors accuse Baghdad of trying to conceal its weapons programs.
Although it is difficult to read Saddam’s motives, he appears to be hoping to pressure the Security Council to withdraw the inspectors and lift the postwar economic sanctions.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Carry on Richard Butler, chief U.N. weapons inspector, said he has directed Scott Ritter’s team to proceed with its assignment despite Iraqi objections.