By Howard Diamond and Erik J. Leklem
With a U.S.-led strike on Iraq possibly only days off, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered an 11th hour deal with Saddam Hussein, averting what could have been the most significant conflict in the region since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The new agreement ended a three month standoff between Iraq and the international community by providing UN weapons inspectors access to eight so-called presidential sites Baghdad had previously declared off limits. A seven point memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on February 23 provides special procedures for inspections of presidential sites where UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will have to be accompanied by diplomats.
Since last December, UNSCOM has been seeking access to the presidential compounds to search for documents and computer data it believes Iraq has hidden in an attempt to deny the information to inspectors. Although UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors are supposed to have complete access to all sites in Iraq in order to verify the elimination of Baghdad's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their ballistic missile delivery systems, Iraq has refused to provide access to the so called "presidential and sovereign" sites. The new agreement, while reaffirming the inspectors' right to "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to presidential and all other sites, recognizes Baghdad's concerns about the composition and conduct of UNSCOM's teams and the sensitivity of the presidential sites.
According to the MOU, inspections of presidential sites will be conducted by a Special Group composed of senior diplomats appointed by Annan, and experts drawn from UNSCOM and IAEA. Annan announced on February 26 that Sri Lankan Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the new UN undersecretary general for disarmament, would be leading the Special Group as commissioner. Dhanapala achieved acclaim in 1995 for shepherding the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty through the treaty review conference.
UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler of Australia said Dhanapala would be reporting to him and that he was "delighted" with the secretary general's selection. As of the end of February, procedures for the Special Group were still being worked out at the UN, and regular UNSCOM inspections into Iraq's past weapons programs and concealment activities were expected to resume in early March.
The Clinton administration has offered cautious approval of the Annan Aziz deal, but insists that with seveal details of the presidential inspections agreement to be worked out, final judgment should wait until the new procedures are tested. President Bill Clinton has said the new arrangements could enable UNSCOM to fulfill its mandate, "but the proof is in the testing." Clinton said he intends to keep the U.S. strike force deployed in the Persian Gulf until the new inspection arrangements are in effect and Iraqi compliance is confirmed.
Republican reaction to the secretary general's diplomacy was mixed. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) complained "it is always possible to get a deal if you give enough away," while two top leaders of the House of Representatives, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) took a wait and see approach. Other Republicans objecting to the secretary general's deal included the chairmen of the foreign affairs committees, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and House International Affairs Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), as well as House National Security Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-SC).
Annan's trip to Baghdad came after three months of escalating tension over UNSCOM's ability to inspect all sites within Iraq. Last November, only days after accepting a Russian diplomatic initiative to resolve the October 29 to November 22 stand-off over UNSCOM's right to use American inspectors, Baghdad began warning that special sites reflective of Iraq's sovereignty and security would be off-limits to UN inspectors.
At the urging of the Security Council, Butler traveled to Baghdad for meetings with Aziz on December 14 and 15 to discuss ways to accelerate progress on verifying the elimination of proscribed weapons and to seek clarification of Iraq's position on access. In the meetings, Baghdad made clear that "presidential and sovereign sites" were off limits to UNSCOM. Aziz also declared that Iraq had completely divested itself of all of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and would no longer offer new data to UNSCOM. After declining Butler's request to develop a joint program for accelerating UNSCOM's work, Aziz proposed holding technical evaluation meetings (TEMs) where outside experts and UNSCOM staff would meet with Iraqi officials and assess Baghdad's disarmament achievements.
Assessing Iraqi Compliance
Butler accepted the Iraqi proposal for TEMs and agreed to schedule meetings on the chemical agent VX, missile warheads and the entire biological weapons file. In response to Iraq's declaration that no access would be given to presidential sites, on December 22 the UN Security Council issued a statement rejecting the Iraqi position and again insisted that weapons inspectors were entitled to complete access to all parts of Iraq.
On January 13, six days before Butler's scheduled trip to Baghdad to arrange the TEMs, Iraq blocked a team of UNSCOM inspectors led by American Scott Ritter. Unwilling to accept Baghdad's limits on the nationalities of inspectors, Butler pulled Ritter and his team out of Iraq on January 16 but kept UNSCOM's monitoring and verification staff in their Baghdad headquarters. Backed by another Security Council statement demanding Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions, Butler returned to Baghdad for meetings January 19 to 21 with Tariq Aziz.
Iraq, Aziz said, had already fulfilled its disarmament obligations and would not allow inspections of its eight presidential compounds. Baghdad was ready for war if it came as a result, he said.
Amid Butler's December and January trips to Baghdad, U.S. and British officials reiterated their readiness to use force against Iraq and began pressing allies and members of the Security Council to support military action against Iraq. Following a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on January 29, French Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine announced France would not oppose military action, but still believed in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Iraq.
U.S. officials were unable to obtain even passive support from Russia and China. Days before strikes were expected in late February, Moscow and Beijing were still outspoken opponents of using force against Iraq. Arab states in the Gulf were more forthcoming, offering varying levels of cooperation and support for U.S. airstrikes. Bahrain and Kuwait offered Washington bases for strike aircraft, while Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates gave permission for cargo, refueling and airborne warning jets to operate from their soil.
Washington initially emphasized using force to coerce Baghdad into giving full access to UNSCOM inspectors by attacking the key supports of Saddam Hussein's power. As criticism of this approach mounted in late January, however, the administration changed its objective to punishing Baghdad by degrading Iraq's production facilities for proscribed weapons and its ability to threaten its neighbors. The administration also continued to build up the largest assembly of warships and attack aircraft in the Persian Gulf since the 1991 war. By mid February the United States and allies had sent over 30,000 military personnel, 20 warships and 400 combat aircraft to the Gulf area to prepare for strikes on Iraq.
Washington and London also began providing assessments of the outstanding issues remaining in Baghdad's compliance with Security Council resolutions, in attempts to justify military action against Iraq. On February 4, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook released a White Paper arguing that Iraq retained or had not accounted for: chemical precursors that could be used to produce over 200 tons of VX; 17 metric tons of biological growth media that could be used to produce "up to 350 liters of weapons grade anthrax per week;" and continuing efforts by Baghdad "to acquire banned WMD technology," including "advanced missile guidance parts."
The British paper was followed on February 15 by a more detailed report released by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC). Starting with the extensive record of Iraqi interference with inspections and refusal to provide necessary documentation, the NSC report detailed continuing concerns in the nuclear, chemical, biological and missile areas.
According to the NSC paper, Iraq continues to hide or cannot verify the elimination of 25 missile warheads filled with anthrax, botulinum toxin or aflatoxin; 45 to 70 missile warheads for use with chemical agents, 134 aerial bombs and a small number of aerosol spraers for delivering biological agents; and a stockpile of as much as 600 metric tons of VX, sarin, mustard agents and associated munitions and production equipment. Baghdad may also have a small force of SCUD type missiles and the capability to make more. In the nuclear file, Iraq continues "to withhold significant information about enrichment techniques, foreign procurement, weapons design andpostwar concealment," suggesting continued interest in nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and British assessments were supported by reports from the VX and missile warhead TEMs that met in early February. Both panels, after meetings with Iraqi officials, confirmed UNSCOM's judgment that Iraq had not provided sufficient information to confirm the destruction of the proscribed weapons and production facilities associated with them. An UNSCOM source said the missile warhead meeting produced no new information and described it as a political maneuver by Iraq to try to undercut UNSCOM. The biological weapons TEM was delayed due to the political crisis of February and has been rescheduled for mid March in New York, according to UNSCOM officials.
With UN officials working out the details of the Annan Aziz deal, analysts are attempting to assess its likelihood of success as well as the long term effect the new arrangements will have on UNSCOM. Critics of the new arrangement, including previous UNSCOM inspectors, cite the new deal as evidence of success in Baghdad's campaign to discredit the UN inspection regime and challenge the integrity of its inspectors.
Others are more sanguine. Chief weapons inspector Butler quickly voiced his approval of the new arrangement, which he had himself proposed during his January meetings in Baghdad. Some U.S. officials, while remaining skeptical of Saddam's willingness to cooperate, have suggested that if Iraq fails to comply with the new arrangements, Washington will be well situated to demand international support for military action.