U.N. Urges Iraq To End Standoff
By John M. Goshko
Adding a chilling sense of urgency to the situation was the revelation that the United Nations has intelligence indicating that Iraq, despite its categorical denials, may have conducted chemical warfare experiments on human prisoners. The U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, told the council in closed session today that Iraq's new restrictions on U.N. teams were preventing his subordinates from investigating these allegations.
By its action today, the council signaled what is likely to be a pause of about 10 days to see if the Iraqi government will heed its 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. And, if the events of the next few days show that this situation has not changed, President Clinton may no longer be able to avoid a decision to drop the U.S. strategy of seeking multilateral diplomatic action and turn instead to American air and missile strikes against suspected Iraqi targets.
The council acted as Butler confirmed that his teams were trying to investigate allegations that Iraq has used prison 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. Today, 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 were 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 was any truth to the charges.
He told the council there was 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.
In Washington, White House officials said they knew of no independent confirmation of Butler's allegations but considered them credible and hoped they would 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."
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.
The statement, read by French Ambassador Alain Dejammet, this month's council president, did not threaten any specific actions against Iraq. Instead it was intended to strengthen Butler's hand when he goes to Iraq this weekend to explore with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz whether the new standoff can be resolved. The council is expected to take no further action until Butler returns to New York and meets with the members, probably next Thursday or Friday.
Butler, an Australian diplomat, is executive director of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with ensuring that Iraq's weapon of mass destruction have been eliminated. Until UNSCOM certifies that is the case, the council will not lift the stringent economic sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf conflict.
The confrontation essentially is a replay of what happened in November when Baghdad, apparently trying to test the council's resolve, ordered American inspectors out of Iraq, causing Butler to briefly withdraw all his teams. The situation was temporarily eased when Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a proponent of special Russian relations with Iraq, persuaded Baghdad to allow the inspectors to return in exchange for promises to seek a more flexible Security Council approach to dealing with the sanctions.
While the council members have been unanimous in agreeing that Iraq is obligated to obey council orders, it was evident in November and December that several members including Russia, France and China -- all permanent members with the power to veto any decision -- oppose trying to enforce these orders through military force or even stiffened sanctions.
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