Trip to Iraq Last Chance, Annan Says
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A23
UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 18Having won backing for a diplomatic mission from the five permanent members of the Security Council, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said today that his trip to Baghdad was the last chance to head off a war.
Annan intends to leave Thursday carrying a compromise by the Security Council intended to allow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to back down while saving face. The compromise would have diplomats tag along with U.N. weapons inspectors to the eight presidential palaces that the Iraqi government has declared off-limits.
Diplomats here said that Iraq was aware of the proposed face-saving compromise on Tuesday when it formally welcomed Annan's announced visit. But they said there is no indication at this point whether it might be an acceptable cover for Saddam Hussein, allowing him to backtrack on months of provocations that have led the United States to prepare a massive air attack on Iraq.
While acknowledging that "this obviously is not going to be an easy mission," Annan said today that he has been in frequent touch with the Iraqi government and is "encouraged by the message coming from Baghdad that they are prepared to engage me constructively to find a solution."
Annan, a Ghanaian facing by far the greatest diplomatic challenge of his 13 months as secretary general, is due in Baghdad on Friday after a stop in Paris. He said he will stay in Iraq for no more than two days before returning to brief the Security Council.
Under the proposal, said one senior U.N. diplomat, diplomatic observers "can stand around" and provide the Iraqi government with a "fig leaf" of international respect for its sovereignty as U.N. inspectors do their job with no time limits imposed. Baghdad's most recent offer had been to open the closed sites to inspection for 60 days -- an offer the United States rejected.
American support for Annan's mission was couched today in language that ranged from carefully supportive to bluntly pessimistic. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said, "There's been no indication from the government of Iraq that would lead anyone to be optimistic."
Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was only slightly more encouraging. He wished Annan "Godspeed," described him as "very skilled" and said he had the "full support" of President Clinton. But Richardson insisted that nothing Annan does -- short of coaxing Saddam Hussein into giving U.N. weapons inspectors "unconditional, unfettered" access to suspected weapons sites -- will defuse the crisis.
"If Iraq does not comply, there are going to be some very, very serious consequences," Richardson warned.
The United Nations has been down this foggy road before with Saddam Hussein. In 1991, then-Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar made an abortive trip to Baghdad trying to head off the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein kept him waiting an entire day before seeing the U.N. leader and then refused to pull his troops out of Kuwait.
Annan suggested today that he has given considerable thought to his predecessor's humiliation. He said that in recent days he has been on the phone to Paris to speak with Perez de Cuellar. "I know about his experience and probably will see him on my way through Paris," Annan said.
Asked about Annan's mission, Perez de Cuellar told reporters that he is hoping the secretary general will produce a "miracle."
A senior U.N. diplomat said Annan understands the trip to Baghdad puts him in a vulnerable position that may damage the image of the United Nations, but added that the secretary general believes he has no choice but to go. "It's not going to be good for the United Nations to fail, but it wouldn't be good for the United Nations to do nothing," said the diplomat.
Besides being in the dark about whether Saddam Hussein is prepared to back down, the diplomat said Annan also is unclear about whether the U.S. government regards his Baghdad trip as a meaningless exercise. "It is hard to know about the Americans. They might have already decided to bomb," said the diplomat.
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