Iraqis Happy With Pact on Inspections
By John Lancaster
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 23Seated at the door of his bustling shish-kebab restaurant, Samir Naaman buttonholed a foreign visitor and demanded to know the latest news from this morning's meeting between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
"Is there really an agreement?" Naaman, 48, asked in a voice tinged with apprehension. "Everything is finished?"
Told that Annan and Aziz had just put their signatures to a deal they hope will end the international crisis over U.N. weapons inspections -- and remove the threat of massive U.S. airstrikes -- the bearded restaurateur turned his palms upward and raised his eyes to the heavens in a silent gesture of joy.
"Everybody is happy," he said.
The deal reached this weekend between Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and formally concluded this morning, still must pass muster with the Security Council and especially the United States, which has reserved the right to bomb Iraq if the agreement does not meet its standard for "full and unfettered access" to suspected weapons sites.
But for now, at least, Iraqis are expressing widespread relief over the outcome of Annan's visit. They believe it has sharply reduced the threat of American bombing and, just as important, hastened progress toward an eventual lifting of the crippling international trade embargo imposed in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In a news conference with Annan this morning, Aziz described the deal as a "great victory" that has achieved significant concessions on the manner of inspections by the U.N. weapons commission, known as UNSCOM, and allowed Iraq to make its case in the court of international opinion for the lifting of sanctions.
"I think Iraq has achieved a great deal," said Aziz, who appeared in a green military uniform and black beret. "We are going to work together in good faith and cooperation and we hope that this humanitarian, legal objective of lifting the sanctions will be done very soon."
Asked whether the threat of military action played a role in resolving the standoff, Aziz replied: "The military buildup in the gulf does not scare the people and the leadership of Iraq. What helped in reaching this agreement between the secretary general, my president and the Iraqi government is . . . the goodwill involved, not the American or the British buildup in the gulf and not the policy of saber rattling."
Aziz's characterizations notwithstanding, the agreement appears to represent a significant retreat by the Iraqi government, which had insisted it would never allow U.N. inspectors into eight "presidential" sites. Some of these are large compounds suspected of hiding programs to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Although its details have not been made public, the agreement would permit the U.N. commission to inspect the contested sites in the company of diplomatic escorts, according to senior U.N. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.N. officials flatly denied an Iraqi News Agency report this afternoon that the agreement would impose a time limit on the inspectors' work.
"I can say categorically, there are no time limits or deadlines in the agreement," Annan said.
During perhaps the most remarkable moment of the news conference, Annan explicitly challenged Aziz's comments on the role of the American and British buildup in the gulf.
"You can do a lot with diplomacy, but of course you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up by firmness and force," he said in a tacit nod of appreciation to American policymakers.
Aziz was openly irritated by a reporter's question suggesting that the deal represented an Iraqi retreat. "First of all, you don't know what we have agreed upon and don't rush to conclusions," he snapped.
U.N. officials acknowledged that Iraq did not come away from the negotiating table empty-handed. Baghdad clearly won assurances from Annan that the weapons inspectors would take a somewhat more diplomatic approach to their work, particularly with regard to sensitive sites that Iraq considers symbols of national sovereignty.
"I have the undertaking from the Iraqi authorities that they will carry out their part of the bargain and that the UNSCOM inspectors and the U.N. sanctions should also be sensitive to the concerns as to the dignity, security, and sovereignty" of Iraq, Annan said.
Similarly, while insisting that the U.N. inspectors not be subject to time limits, the secretary general observed, "I think it is important that we try to do our work within a reasonable period."
On the matter of sanctions, U.N. officials noted that only the Security Council can decide whether to lift the embargo. It will do so based on whether Iraq has fulfilled its obligations to disarm and to account for Kuwaitis missing from the war, among other things. Annan acknowledged, however, that he and his Iraqi negotiating partners had discussed ways to expedite the lifting of the sanctions during their talks in Baghdad.
"When and how" the U.N. commission will complete its work "I cannot say, but I would hope that the way we have discussed this problem, our determination to improve relations, to enhance the work of UNSCOM and accelerate the process, we will be seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Annan said.
In terms sharply at odds with the U.S. view of the Iraqi president, Annan gave particular credit to Saddam Hussein. "The president was very well-informed and was in full control of the facts. I was grateful to him that we were frank, constructive and at the end were determined to settle this issue diplomatically," he said.
After lunch with Aziz at Radwaniyah Palace -- one of the eight disputed sites -- Annan and his delegation boarded a plane at Saddam International Airport for a flight to Paris, en route to New York. He is scheduled to brief the Security Council on his mission at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
In the meantime, Annan's presence in Baghdad and his conciliatory words toward the Iraqi leadership appear to have resonated strongly with Iraqis desperate to end their country's diplomatic and economic isolation.
"It's a turning point, not only in Iraq but for the entire world," said Abdel Karim Goumaa, 68, who once held a senior post in the Health Ministry and now earns about $3 a day buying and selling food rations he carries in the back of a battered Datsun pickup.
Asked whether he considered the agreement to be a defeat for the United States, Goumaa replied: "It's not a matter of defeat. We look for peace and stability. . . . We hope the relationship will be good with UNSCOM and even the United States, because we love peace."
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