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Iraq Special Report

  Annan 'Optimistic' Iraq Will Make Deal

The Iraqi delegation headed by Aziz, left, and the U.N. delegation headed by Annan, right, meet in Baghdad Saturday. (AP Photo)
By John F. Harris and John Lancaster
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page A01

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan met in Baghdad with Iraqi leaders into the early hours today and said he expects to return to New York later this week with a written agreement on a proposal to open restricted areas to U.N. weapons inspectors and avert a U.S.-led military strike against Iraq.

In Washington, President Clinton huddled with his national security team to discuss what terms would be acceptable for any deal Annan negotiates and to continue planning for an air bombardment campaign that senior officials said continues to be more likely than not. The State Department issued an advisory to Americans in Iraq, urging them "to depart as soon as possible."

"U.S. military preparations are proceeding without regard to these talks," White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said of the meetings Annan is holding in Baghdad.

Even so, Berger signaled that Clinton is open to a diplomatic solution -- so long as the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) remains in charge of weapons inspections in Iraq and that its personnel are allowed to go where they want.

"Those are the two fundamental principles," said Berger. "There could be details that would not undermine those two objectives that we would not object to."

Congress has yet to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. Berger, who has been consulting with congressional leaders on the subject, said the administration wants a resolution of support but does not believe it needs one legally.

Although Clinton administration foreign policy officials faced a somewhat combative audience last week at Ohio State University when they sought to explain the rationale for a military strike against Iraq, polls suggest Clinton has widespread support for such an action. But about 2,000 protesters yesterday marched from Dupont Circle to the White House to protest such a strike.

Two congressional Republicans also questioned the airstrike. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN's "Evans & Novak" a brief strike may be ineffective and suggested "a month-long campaign" aimed at destabilizing Saddam Hussein by turning his troops against him. In a speech last night at the University of Oregon, Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) called for Congress to debate and vote on the issue.

Annan, who arrived in Baghdad Friday, held three negotiating sessions Saturday with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf and other senior Iraqi officials in an effort to break a deadlock that began with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's declaration that his eight presidential palaces are off-limits to weapons inspectors. Annan said he hopes to meet with Saddam Hussein today.

Although the official Iraqi news agency described yesterday's talks as "difficult," Annan said they were substantive enough to leave him "rather optimistic."

"We started well," Annan told reporters at his guest house overlooking the Tigris River, in between his second and third meeting. "It's not easy. We still have quite a lot of work to do, but [we] had a good meeting."

The problem for the United States, as various senior administration officials described it yesterday, is that the results of Annan's diplomacy may well be murky. Clinton aides said they expect Annan to extract from Saddam Hussein something between capitulation, which would bring a happy end to the crisis, and defiance, which would prompt Clinton to order air strikes without delay.

A senior administration official said yesterday's White House meetings dealt with a variety of "what-if scenarios," depending on the result of Annan's talks in Baghdad. There was special emphasis, another senior official said, on how a military attack would affect relations with other countries in the region and in Europe, and what it would do to the Middle East peace process.

Another official predicted that much of the coming week -- following the secretary general's return on Tuesday -- will be devoted to assessing the results of his trip. If so, that would apparently delay any U.S. strike -- named "Desert Thunder" by military planners -- until at least the end of this week. And it could avert an attack altogether.

"Very few people think [Annan] will come back with something black or white; it will very likely be some shade of gray," said one senior administration official. "The question is what do we do to turn gray areas into something that is either black or white."

Yesterday's White House meetings, like others over the past week, also focused heavily on what would follow the planned air campaign. Among the options, officials said, is an expansion of the "no-fly-zones" in northern and southern Iraq to the entire country, with a threat to leave these restrictions in place indefinitely unless Saddam Hussein lets weapons inspectors resume their work.

Among the others present at the meeting with Clinton were Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson and deputy national security adviser James B. Steinberg.

Senior U.S. officials also said Clinton has been discussing ways to increase support for Iraqi exile groups to encourage an eventual overthrow of the Baghdad regime. "Our posture does not have to be passive" toward Saddam Hussein in the wake of an attack, a senior administration official said.

The Annan mission has presented a dilemma for the Clinton administration. Among their fears, senior officials said, is that the secretary general would return with a proposal that looks reasonable to many nations -- diluting international support for confronting Baghdad -- but still falls short of U.S. demands. In addition, administration officials feel their credibility at home and abroad is on the line; a similar crisis over weapons inspections last fall was resolved through a diplomatic deal that Saddam Hussein quickly defied.

"We're not in the souk," said one of the president's most senior advisers, referring to the open-air markets common in the Middle East. "We're on an aircraft carrier. . . . We're not in a bargaining posture. [Saddam Hussein] has to comply with the international community."

Even so, Clinton and other senior administration officials in conversations with Annan this week gave him at least some room to bargain in Baghdad.

Administration officials have said they would be willing to let UNSCOM inspectors be accompanied by diplomats. Those diplomats would be appointed by Annan and would effectively serve as chaperones.

In addition, a senior administration official said, Clinton would be willing to put some very limited areas of Saddam Hussein's palaces off-limits to inspections -- so long as the restrictions applied unambiguously to his living quarters, and not the vast adjacent compounds where weapons caches or important documents may be stored. The idea, this official said, is to blunt Saddam Hussein's argument to other nations that the United States is more interested in violating his personal privacy than in finding biological, chemical or nuclear weapons programs.

Annan yesterday did not elaborate on the written document he expects his Baghdad meetings to produce, but it would presumably spell out the conditions he discussed with U.S. officials before leaving. Such a proposal would be debated by the Security Council upon his return.

Berger said the administration does not have reliable information on the progress of Annan's ongoing talks.

Harris reported from Washington, Lancaster from Baghdad. Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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