Published on Thursday, October 3, 2002 by the Los Angeles Times
U.S. Losing Iraq Battle at the U.N.
by Maggie Farley and Robin Wright
UNITED NATIONS -- A day after Iraq opened the door to weapons inspections with some limits, a tough U.S. proposal seeking "all necessary means" to force full compliance with past U.N. resolutions appeared to be in trouble Wednesday in the Security Council.
With France proposing an alternative measure designed to delay military intervention, several council members complained that the American approach would more likely lead to war than prevent it.
The shift in attitude, if it holds up, suggested difficult negotiations still ahead for Washington.
"Right now, the U.S. and U.K. don't have enough votes in favor of their proposal," said Ginette de Matha, France's spokeswoman at the world body. "The automatic use of military force is not acceptable."
A Security Council resolution needs support of nine members--and no veto by any of the five nations with permanent seats--the U.S., Britain, China, Russia and France. So far, only Britain has backed the Bush administration's draft resolution, with Colombia hinting that it might also support the measure.
But encouraged by signs of cooperation by Iraq, the rest of the Security Council seems to be leaning toward France's two-step approach that first allows weapons inspectors a chance to establish whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime has eliminated any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and the missiles that would be used to deliver them. If Baghdad fails, the Security Council would need to pass a second resolution authorizing military force.
Though U.S. diplomats delayed the formal introduction of their text in the face of the council's heightened resistance, they said Wednesday that the U.S. would stand firm.
"We'll work it out," said a senior State Department official. "We have a history of prevailing, and we intend to."
The U.S. has drafted a resolution that would give inspectors broad new powers to hunt for suspected weapons of mass destruction and provide them armed security while they conduct their search. If Iraq does not accept the terms within a week of passage or fails to disclose required information within 30 days, the resolution authorizes "all necessary means" to force compliance--in other words, a military attack.
The U.S. text, drafted in consultation with Britain, has other requirements that Security Council members may resist. It demands that Iraq fully disclose the extent of its weapons programs, including the names of scientists who have worked on them. It includes provisions for taking Iraqis and their families out of the country for private interviews, which diplomats say would be an invitation to defect. It also would allow any Security Council member to place a representative on an inspection team to report back to his or her home government, a provision that Iraq probably would view as authorizing intelligence gathering.
"We see it as a hard-line text designed for negotiation," said a council diplomat who opposes the U.S. proposal. "These are terms almost no one can accept. If we did, it would be an invitation for war."
Washington's hard-nosed strategy seems to have been undermined by Iraq's last-minute softening at the two days of talks in Vienna this week on inspections. Every Iraqi signal of cooperation--no matter how grudging and limited--seems to bolster council resistance to the U.S. strategy of "regime change."
Hussein's pattern in the past has been to hold out until the last moment, and then give in, said a diplomat close to the talks in Vienna. That pattern seems to be at work again, and plays to divisions within Washington and on the council.
In the Vienna meeting, Iraqi officials agreed quickly to basic logistical matters, such as where the inspectors would stay and establish their bases, the diplomat said. The Iraqis eventually gave in to unfettered visits to "sensitive sites," including mosques and government buildings.
But the Iraqi team refused to give up exemptions agreed to in 1998 with Secretary-General Kofi Annan for eight sites around Hussein's presidential palaces.
Today, U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will brief the Security Council on the Vienna talks and describe what powers his inspectors would need to do their job effectively. He said this week that he could send advance teams to Iraq as early as Oct. 19. But the U.S. insists that the teams wait for a new resolution that strengthens their mandate and repeals conditions restricting impromptu inspections of the eight presidential sites.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker insisted Wednesday on unfettered access to all sites, especially the presidential palaces.
"These are gigantic facilities, extremely well guarded, unknown underground networks with unknown equipment and unknown activities," Reeker told reporters. "We're not talking Sleeping Beauty here, we're talking massive structures, gigantic facilities, extremely well guarded. What's he hiding?"
He said the administration will not allow Hussein's regime to "bamboozle" the United Nations.
"If he's serious, if he means to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions to which he agreed, then he will open these things up," Reeker said. "He hasn't in the past. We've played this game, and we're not going to play it anymore."
As the U.S. worked to line up support among Security Council members, administration officials outlined a strategy Wednesday that concentrated first on winning over the Russians and then using that success to pressure the French to back a tough resolution.
In intensive discussions in Washington, New York and Moscow, U.S. officials are pressing their Russian counterparts to sign on--in exchange for significant economic benefits and a major role in Iraq if Hussein's regime falls, said administration sources who requested anonymity. The key incentive reportedly is an understanding that Russia would play a prominent part in the political transition in Baghdad, a means of helping Moscow secure a longer-term relationship with a new government.
There were hints Wednesday that the approach might be working, with Russia indicating that it had softened significantly on its earlier refusal to back any resolution.
"If additional decisions are necessary for the efficient work of the inspectors, we, of course, are ready to consider them," Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said in Moscow.
For decades, Iraq has been Russia's closest ally in the Arab world as well as a critical source of revenue from arms purchases. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, which followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War by less than a year, Moscow's influence among other Arabs--including the Syrians, Algerians and Palestinians--has dwindled significantly.
"The government is under a lot of pressure domestically to have guarantees that Russia will not lose its foothold in the Middle East," said a State Department official who requested anonymity.
The tactic worked a decade ago when the United States won agreement from Russia to push for Middle East peace by making Moscow a co-partner in mediating the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The U.S. also is discussing terms that would guarantee that any new government in Iraq would repay $8 billion owed Russia for past purchases. U.S. officials note that a significant chunk of the money--possibly as much as 40%--comes from purchases since 1991 that could be viewed as violations of U.N. economic sanctions.
A new Iraqi government might opt to void any of the debt found to be in contravention of international sanctions, U.S. officials say.
Finally, the U.S. is discussing ways to ensure that Russia will continue to be involved in Iraq's oil industry.
In recent years, Moscow has signed a number of deals with Baghdad for joint oil projects to take effect as soon as economic sanctions are lifted, but a regime change could endanger those agreements.
Even as Washington courts Russia, it is failing to win over its usual European allies, who are frustrated by what they see as a multiplicity of messages coming from the White House. The rationale for regime change in Iraq has shifted--from the threat of suspected weapons of mass destruction to accusations that Hussein's government is linked to Al Qaeda to issues such as the persecution of his country's citizens.
"It's a problem," said Michael Stuermer, a respected political commentator for the German daily Die Welt and former head of a German government-financed political think tank. "There's no sense of clarity. In matters of life and death, I want a position I can defend clearly and logically, and that's not there."
Farley reported from the United Nations and Wright from Washington. Times staff writer Tyler Marshall at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times