By John M. Goshko
A senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified, said the Clinton administration is especially concerned about how much control the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will retain over inspections of eight large complexes that Iraq claims are essential to its national security.
The agreement negotiated by Annan in Baghdad over the weekend calls for giving the authority to conduct inspections at the eight so-called presidential sites to a new Special Group composed of UNSCOM personnel and senior diplomats, probably chosen from the five permanent Security Council members. The United States fears that this new entity might be more susceptible than UNSCOM to outside political pressures.
The senior official said that in response to U.S. requests for clarification Annan has said that he will choose the commissioner of the Special Group from the ranks of UNSCOM and that UNSCOM will play a major role in guiding its operations. However, he also said he believes UNSCOM requires some kind of political oversight and added that, with this in mind, he intends to appoint a special political representative to Iraq, without spelling out the duties this official would have.
Annan, who returned today from Paris to a hero's welcome from U.N. staff, assured officials that UNSCOM's responsibility for inspections outside the eight disputed areas would continue unchanged. In the accord, Iraq agreed to grant weapons inspectors "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access."
U.S. officials continued to describe the pact in public in generally optimistic, if cautious, terms. However, Annan's descriptions of UNSCOM's revised role seems to fall short of past U.S. insistence that UNSCOM must have the central responsibility in any future inspection activity, and one official said that Annan thus far has not defined UNSCOM's duties within the new group more specifically.
Late today, Annan telephoned Clinton to offer assurances that the arrangements he will make for inspections by the Special Group will meet key U.S. goals, according to two senior administration officials. These officials said that Annan said he will appoint an expert in weapons inspections as the head of the group, and that the inspections it conducts will be run by experts.
"On the points that . . . were of concern to us, Kofi Annan was reassuring," a White House official said.
U.N. sources said that during a closed briefing to ambassadors from the 15 Security Council countries, Hans Corell, the U.N. legal counsel, estimated that there are about 1,500 buildings within the presidential sites. Other senior U.N. officials put the number at "just over 1,000," but the U.S. official said that despite an inspection last week by U.N. cartographers, the United States still has not heard a coherent estimate of how many buildings there are in these compounds that would fall under the jurisdiction of the Special Group.
Annan has said he believes he can work out any differences over the role of UNSCOM through personal discussion with Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who is UNSCOM's chairman. However, U.N. sources said Annan's sympathetic responses to Iraqi complaints about UNSCOM inspectors allegedly being disrespectful of Iraq's sovereignty, dignity and national security have caused anger and resentment among UNSCOM personnel.
Pursuing a theme he first sounded in Baghdad, Annan told a news conference today that UNSCOM staff members "have to handle Iraq and the Iraqis with a certain respect and dignity and not push our weight around and cause tensions." The sources said that during the closed meeting he went further, saying some UNSCOM staff members were "cowboys" who sometimes had behaved irresponsibly while pursuing their duties within Iraq.
The U.N. sources said Annan believes these problems can be dealt with by appointment of a personal political representative to Iraq. They added that he is expected to give the job to Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who has carried out several special U.N. missions and who accompanied Annan to Baghdad.
Brahimi's role would be separate from that of the technical responsibilities assumed by the commissioner of the Special Group. Just what kind of oversight Brahimi might be able to exercise over UNSCOM, as Annan's representative, is unclear since the special commission was created by the Security Council and answers to it.
Another important unanswered question for the United States involves language in the agreement reiterating the commitment of all U.N. countries "to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq." The United States wants assurances that Iraq will not use this provision as a pretext for impeding future inspections, but Annan has not provided what Washington regards as satisfactory answers, officials said.
Unless and until the United States is satisfied on all these points, the Security Council cannot move to approve the agreement and put it into effect. U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said today that the administration wants a "quick test" of Iraq's good faith by beginning inspections of the disputed sites very soon.
To that end, Richardson added, the United States hopes its questions will be answered satisfactorily in the next day or so and that the Security Council can begin considering a resolution to approve the agreement. Diplomats here believe the United States wants a resolution that automatically will declare Iraq in breach of the agreement if it resumes its obstructive tactics and open the way to U.S. military action without further action. However, U.N. sources said tonight, it still is to early to say precisely what approach the council will take.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated that the United States wants to test Iraqi compliance and will insist that technical inspectors rather than diplomats remain in control of the inspection process.
The United States will "continue to back diplomacy with force," she said. "If Iraq interferes with the inspections or tries to undermine UNSCOM's efforts in any way, we will act firmly and forcefully and without delay. We will not allow Saddam Hussein to take us from crisis to crisis."
While most committee members appeared to reserve judgment on the agreement, Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a frequent critic of the United Nations, evoked the words of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after making concessions to Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, saying: "Now Mr. Annan is back promising 'peace in our time.' And we're in the disgraceful position of either going along with whatever deal Mr. Annan brought home or being regarded as the bad guys who rejected peace and insisted on war."
At the United Nations, though, Annan, cognizant that the agreement has won endorsement throughout most of the world, said, "Obviously there are explanations that must be given . . . I am convinced that once they are given, we will have unanimous and strong council support."
He noted that the agreement he brought back from Baghdad was different from others worked out between the United Nations and Iraq because "none of the others have been negotiated and approved by Saddam Hussein." Asked if he trusted the Iraqi leader, Annan replied: "I think I can do business with him."
Staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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