The Security Council condemned on Wednesday Iraq’s latest obstruction of U.N. weapons inspections and called on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to halt the confrontation which has brought Baghdad and the United Nations to the brink of renewed crisis.
Adding a chilling sense of urgency to the situation was the revelation that the United Nations has intelligence information indicating that Iraq, despite its categorical denials, may have conducted chemical warfare experiments on human prisoners. The United Nations’ chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, told the council in closed session Wednesday that Iraq’s new restrictions on U.N. teams are preventing his subordinates from investigating those allegations.
By its action Wednesday, the council signaled what is likely to be a pause of about 10 days to see if the Iraqi government will heed the new admonition and back down. If Iraq refuses, as is widely expected, the council will be back in the same position it narrowly avoided in November - having to consider what steps it might take to force Iraq to comply with its orders.
Last fall, it was clear that deep divisions within the 15-nation council would block a resort to military action or even severe new sanctions. If the events of the next few days show that this situation has not changed, President Clinton no longer may be able to avoid a decision to drop the U.S. strategy of seeking multilateral diplomatic action and to turn instead to American air and missile strikes against suspected Iraqi targets.
The council acted as Butler confirmed that his teams are trying to investigate allegations that Iraq has used inmates in experiments to test chemical weapons.
Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, brought the matter to light Tuesday when he sent a letter to the council denying the allegations. Wednesday, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said in Baghdad of the charges, “Never, never. never. It was a sheer lie being used as a pretext (by U.N. inspectors) to enter a disputed site.”
“We have evidence this may have taken place,” Butler said in a terse statement on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” U.N. sources said he told a closed meeting of the Security Council that the allegations are based on classified raw intelligence from several countries that he could not discuss in detail. The sources said he added that the blocked field investigations were intended, in part, to determine if there is any truth to the charges.
He told the council there are grounds for suspecting the alleged experiments might have taken place in 1994 or 1995 at a prison that U.N. inspectors are trying to enter. However, he said, the inspectors found Monday that prison records for those years are missing.
White House officials said they know of no independent confirmation of Butler’s allegations but consider them credible and hope they will strengthen the determination of U.S. allies to be firm in dealing with Baghdad.
“We don’t want to convict them in advance,” Clinton said of Iraq. “But if there is enough evidence for Mr. Butler to say that, then he ought to be able to go look. … I would remind you that in 1995, (the Iraqis) admitted having stocks of chemical and biological weapons.”
Clinton added, “We just need everybody to stiffen their resolve now so we can go back and do our jobs. And we have to be absolutely resolute in insisting that it be done.”
The council’s demand for Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions was in the form of a statement endorsed by all 15 members. It was issued as Iraq, for the second straight day, blocked an inspection by a U.N. team led by Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who the Iraqis charge is an American spy.