Annan, Iraq Agree on Inspections
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 23, 1998; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 22Against a backdrop of threatened U.S. airstrikes, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan tonight reached an agreement with senior Baghdad officials that he believes could end the crisis over U.N. inspections of suspected Iraqi weapons sites, his spokesman said.
After meeting for three hours this afternoon with President Saddam Hussein, Annan and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz agreed on a deal that would open Iraqi presidential compounds to inspection by U.N. teams searching for evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told reporters. No details of the deal were made available.
The agreement is still subject to U.N. Security Council approval, and Washington has reserved the right to launch airstrikes at Iraq regardless of what the other council members decide. But after speaking today with senior officials from the five permanent council members -- including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright -- Annan was confident that all would accept the deal, according to his spokesman.
[Annan was scheduled to sign the deal with Iraqi officials here early Monday morning, then appear at a joint news conference at 10:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. EST), but the news conference had not begun as of 11 a.m. and it was not clear what caused the delay. Annan had planned to leave for New York within hours of the signing and was to present the document to the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon. Council members will then decide whether to accept it.]
In Washington, U.S. officials, who were briefed only on the broad outlines of the agreement, reacted cautiously to the news from Iraq. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said preliminary accounts had been received from Baghdad, but he refused to assess them. "We've got a lot of serious questions," he said. "It's a very serious matter at a serious time, and we want to get some questions answered."
President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke twice by telephone today and agreed that Iraq would be given "no concessions," a Blair spokesman said. Albright, during a television interview earlier in the day, insisted that Saddam Hussein "has to back down. . . . He has to reverse course." [Story on Page A15.]
On grounds of national sovereignty, Iraq has refused to open eight of the sites to the inspectors on the U.N. weapons commission, known by the initials UNSCOM. Iraq's refusal to cooperate with the inspection program, a legacy of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has led to a tense confrontation with the Security Council and threats of massive U.S.-led airstrikes.
"We have reached agreement," Eckhard told reporters camped outside the river-front guest house where Annan is staying.
Annan "feels that this agreement fulfills the two principal objectives he had in coming here -- respect for the Security Council resolutions governing the inspection regime in Iraq and the preservation of the integrity of UNSCOM's inspection process," Eckhard said. "We feel it's very positive. It's positive for Iraq, and it's positive for the region and, in fact, for the world."
Although Eckhard would not discuss details of the agreement, he confirmed that Iraq had dropped its previous demand that any inspections of the presidential compounds be subject to firm time limits.
Britain, America's strongest backer for a military strike if diplomacy does not resolve the issue, reacted warily to reports of a deal, while France, which championed efforts for a diplomatic solution, welcomed the news.
Clinton and Blair, in their conversations today, spoke extensively about what will happen this week at the United Nations and agreed that if the Annan mission is unsuccessful, the United States will support a British call for a Security Council resolution warning Iraq that a military strike is imminent, a position that an administration official said Clinton agreed with. And if Annan does broker an acceptable deal, the official said, the United States and Britain will push for a resolution codifying its terms, making it harder for Iraq to defy them in the future.
A deal acceptable to Iraq and the United States would be a major diplomatic coup for Annan and a welcome reprieve for Iraq, whose sanctions-weary population is bracing for intensive airstrikes of a magnitude not seen here since the Gulf War.
The United States has been preparing for possible military action against Iraq since last fall, when Saddam Hussein ordered the expulsion of Americans on the weapons-inspection teams, accusing them of acting as spies. Americans were readmitted after the intervention of Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, but the crisis flared anew when Iraq blocked access to the presidential sites, three in Baghdad and five in outlying cities.
Iraq says the presidential sites consist of nothing more sinister than palaces and villas for government officials and their guests. The government also insists that it has complied fully with U.N. resolutions mandating destruction of programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The U.N. commission has said it suspects that Iraq is hiding elements of its weapons programs, possibly in the palace compounds.
Important principles are also at stake. The United States is intent on maintaining the inspectors' right to "unfettered access" to suspect facilities. Iraqi officials, for their part, consider the presidential compounds to be symbols of national sovereignty that should not be subject to snooping by uninvited foreign guests.
Under a compromise plan brokered by Russia and France, Iraq would have agreed to permit the inspectors to visit the compounds, but only in the company of diplomatic escorts and only for a period of 60 days, after which they would not be permitted to return to the sites. A U.N. survey team found this month that the sites cover a total area of about 12.6 square miles, suggesting that they are much smaller than the vast complexes described by Clinton and other senior U.S. officials.
The United States and Britain objected to the time limit and the ban on return visits, with the result that they were not included in negotiating guidelines that Annan carried with him to Baghdad from New York.
An administration official said in Washington that Clinton officials had only a sketchy understanding of the Annan talks. While encouraging statements made by Annan's spokesman might be a good sign, this official said, policymakers worry that the secretary general may not be insisting on the right of inspectors to make repeat visits to presidential palaces.
U.S. officials appear wary about how Annan will handle the public-relations aspect of his mission. If he declares the talks a success and wins a French endorsement during a stop-over in Paris on his return trip, that could build international momentum for a diplomatic settlement -- even if the details are not to Washington's liking. But administration officials said the United States and Britain are prepared to pronounce an Annan-brokered deal unacceptable regardless of what other nations think.
[Before the announcement in Baghdad, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in London that the United Nations could consider lifting the sanctions if Saddam gives Annan a written promise to comply with the inspections. "If he would comply . . . and if he really is willing this time to cooperate and not continue to deceive and delay, (lifting the sanctions) could be done in the fairly near future," Cook said on BBC radio.]
With the United States pouring military forces -- a naval armada and 25,000 troops -- into the Persian Gulf and Iraq maintaining a hard line in its public statements, an air of high drama has surrounded Annan's visit. After arriving here Friday from Paris, Annan and his aides held several lengthy sessions with senior Iraqi officials led by Aziz, with whom he also met in private. A source close to the discussions at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry described them as "very civilized but also difficult. . . . There was no table-thumping or raised voices."
After meeting again this morning with Aziz, the two sides narrowed their differences to a single "substantive" issue, according to a U.N. official close to the talks. "The secretary general still hopes it is possible, but it is up to Iraq now," a U.N. official told reporters gathered outside the lavishly appointed guest house where Annan is staying.
He declined to specify the nature of the disagreement but described it as a potential deal breaker. It apparently centered on Aziz's insistence that the inspectors complete their work in the presidential sites within the specified 60-day time frame.
But Russian intervention may have softened Iraqi resistance. During the last two days, sources said, Primakov telephoned Aziz at Annan's request to explain that the permanent Security Council members could not accept time limits on inspections.
Before his trip, Annan had been given no assurances of a meeting with Saddam Hussein, whose whereabouts are a closely guarded secret. At noon today, however, Annan and three senior aides -- Hans Corell, the undersecretary general for legal affairs; Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat and special adviser to Annan; and Rolf Knutsson, the director of Annan's office -- arrived at Annan's guest house and were taken to "an undisclosed location."
That turned out to be the Republican Palace, the president's main official residence, where Annan and Saddam Hussein met until after 3 p.m. Following that meeting, Eckhard told reporters that Annan believed he was "on the verge of a breakthrough."
He apparently achieved that breakthrough -- an Iraqi retreat on the issue of time limits -- during his session tonight with Aziz, which broke up around 10 p.m. Annan has the authority to sign a written agreement spelling out the compromise.
Staff writers John F. Harris and Dan Morgan in Washington contributed to this report.
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