Iraq Asks U.N. For Freeze in Access Requests
By John Lancaster
The chief of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq left Baghdad today for New York after failing to persuade the Iraqi government to provide access to presidential palaces and other sites thought to harbor evidence of illegal weapons programs.
Richard Butler, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, told reporters in the Iraqi capital that he had been asked by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to postpone discussion of the issue until April. Butler said he told Aziz that the Iraqi request "flies in the face" of U.N. Security Council demands for unfettered access to suspect facilities, which Iraq considers sovereign territory.
Given the importance that Washington has attached to Butler's two-day mission, Iraq's apparently unyielding response appeared to deepen the prospect of confrontation with the United States and Britain, which continue to build up their military forces in the Persian Gulf. Butler is scheduled to brief the Security Council on the results of his mission on Friday.
[In Washington, President Clinton said he is concerned about the crisis and that "sooner or later, something is going to give," the Reuters news agency reported.]
Aziz's proposal was the latest twist in the continuing standoff between Iraq and the United Nations over weapons inspections carried out under the authority of cease-fire resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Under the resolutions, the inspectors must certify that Iraq is free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons before the Security Council can lift the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraqi officials accuse the United States of manipulating the inspections to ensure that sanctions remain in place indefinitely, with the aim of ousting President Saddam Hussein. Besides blocking access to presidential sites, Iraq has threatened to shoot down American surveillance aircraft assigned to the inspection effort and last week refused to cooperate with an inspection team headed by American Scott Ritter. Iraq says he is a spy.
Tensions escalated as Butler's visit approached. In a speech Saturday marking the seventh anniversary of the war, Saddam Hussein suggested that he would expel the inspectors if they did not certify compliance with the weapons resolutions by May 20. A day later, the Defense Ministry called on Iraqis to report for "popular training," and Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan reiterated Saddam's threat of "jihad" -- literally, "utmost struggle" -- against the country's enemies.
With Washington's European and Arab allies mostly opposed to military action against Baghdad, Clinton administration officials have stressed their desire to resolve the standoff through diplomatic means and said they would reevaluate their options on the basis of Butler's report to the Security Council.
But according to Butler's account today, Aziz told him that Iraq does not want to discuss the question of access until the country's disarmament efforts have been evaluated by weapons experts scheduled to begin meeting in Baghdad next month. "He said . . . when those meetings are finished and they have the positive result that he foresees [and] the only obstacle to lifting the embargo was this question of access to presidential and sovereign sites, then he and I could meet again in April to talk about it," Butler said.
The U.N. envoy said he told Aziz that such a request "flies in the face of the council's decision, and I cannot predict what the council will make of it," Reuters reported from Baghdad. He said Aziz replied that "he was aware of this fact, and Iraq's decision was taken conscious of it, and Iraq, as it were, would take its chances." Butler said he also told Aziz he may send a U.N. inspection team to try to search one of the sites Iraq has declared off-limits.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook today rejected Iraq's call for a freeze in demands for access and said his country could not rule out military action in response to Iraqi defiance. "With every passing day, Saddam Hussein continues to expand his arsenal of biological and chemical weapons," Cook said in remarks quoted by Reuters. "Every week Saddam is creating enough anthrax to fill two missile warheads."
Although he did not achieve the breakthrough he was seeking, Butler said he came away from his meetings in Baghdad with a better understanding of the suspect facilities at the center of the crisis. "We got a clearer idea of that last night than ever before," he said. "I don't know the exact size or the number of buildings in them, but Iraq has identified for us eight sites. These are sites which contain numerous buildings, including these rather special ones which people loosely call palaces."
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