Clinton Endorses Iraq Deal
By Barton Gellman
President Clinton stopped the countdown yesterday to the largest military engagement of his presidency, giving his endorsement in principle to new terms for some United Nations inspections of Iraq but reserving "the unilateral right to respond" if the Baghdad government "does not keep its word this time."
In his cautious welcome for a new accord struck by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, senior advisers said Clinton had to swallow Annan's surprise agreement to remove eight large Iraqi complexes from the jurisdiction of the U.N. Special Commission that since 1991 has supervised the discovery and destruction of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them.
Iraq agreed in the text signed yesterday by Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" for the special commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency "in conformity with" Security Council resolutions. Clinton described the agreement as providing for "unfettered access to all the sites" and said he would maintain a powerful armada of ships and warplanes in the Persian Gulf until Iraq demonstrates its cooperation with inspectors.
However, the text of the accord -- obtained by Reuters and authenticated by U.S. officials -- appeared to provide a new forum in which the Baghdad government could argue its case. For eight "presidential sites" around the country, one of which covers 10 square miles and another of which encompasses some 700 buildings, the "Memorandum of Understanding between the United Nations and the Republic of Iraq" transfers inspection powers to a new panel controlled by the secretary general.
The new panel will comprise "experts" from existing teams and senior diplomats and a commissioner appointed by Annan. It will develop "specific detailed procedures," the agreement states, that take account of "the special nature of the Presidential Sites."
"I don't think it's necessarily a rival bureaucracy," said a high-ranking administration official who has taken part in recent negotiations with Annan. "It depends on whether the group that does the inspecting is UNSCOM and the diplomats watch, or whether the diplomats inspect and the experts watch, and that's what we don't know."
"We will ask him a lot of challenging questions, obviously," the official added.
Clinton acknowledged yesterday that "there are issues that still need to be clarified to our satisfaction and details that need to be spelled out," but he said the United States will work with Annan to "make sure the inspections are rigorous and professional."
"In the days and weeks ahead, UNSCOM must test and verify," he said.
The agreement's ambiguities, and professed uncertainty at the highest levels of the Clinton administration about exactly what the secretary general said to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein Sunday in three hours of talks, left unclear by late last night whether the Baghdad government won other concessions from Annan.
The first formal discussion of the accord will occur today, when Annan is scheduled to brief members of the Security Council in New York.
U.S. and foreign diplomats said they were also working toward a Security Council resolution that would give legal force to Annan's accord. "If there were a resolution it would clearly need to speak to the consequences of failure to implement it," said one senior administration official.
For all their concerns about the text, and insistence that they remain prepared to launch U.S. warplanes at Iraq, some of the president's senior advisers expressed relief at the last-minute reprieve from the contemplated bombardment, which has been aimed at damaging some of the facilities that UNSCOM had been prevented from inspecting.
In meetings with Clinton and his Cabinet-level advisers, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had conveyed "the strong sense that if there was a way for the cup to pass, that the military would like to see the cup pass," said one of Shelton's four-star uniformed contemporaries. "We had a tough time seeing where this thing was going to take us."
Clinton stressed that the accord permits the inspectors "repeat visits and no deadlines to complete their work." Each point represents abandonment of a previous Iraqi demand.
But some of the U.S. and U.N. officials most closely involved in the subject said unhappily that the new arrangement gave implicit support to Iraqi charges that the existing panel cannot be trusted to do its work without a new layer of oversight. They said they worried that Annan's apparent intention to give a new name to the expanded panel could create a bureaucratic rival to UNSCOM, as the present special panel is known, and its executive chairman, Australian diplomat Richard Butler.
"The questions one could ask are what is the role of the secretary general, what are the roles of these characters, can you still do a no-notice inspection, do the inspections have to be approved in advance by any group, how large are the facilities these new procedures apply to, and are there new modalities to be approved on any of this?" said one official who has monitored the weapons inspection program. "The inclination is to think that [U.N. inspectors'] ability to do the job is not going to be favorably affected by this."
Among the important ambiguities of the accord, officials said, are the size and precise nature of the eight special sites. The one-page annex that names them includes no maps and does not distinguish Saddam Hussein's personal residences from the enormous compounds that surround them.
The eight special sites are the Republican Palace Presidential Site, the Sijood Presidential Site and the Radwaniyah Presidential Site, all in Baghdad; the Tharthar Presidential Palace Site, north of the capital; the Tikrit Presidential Palace Site, near the birthplace and power base of Saddam Hussein; the Mosul Presidential Palace area in the north; a huge compound of 10 square miles called Jabal Makhul, near Samarra; and the Basra Presidential Site in southern Iraq.
With his top national security advisers at his side, Clinton said in his televised news conference that Iraq agreed "all other areas, facilities, equipment, records and means of transportation shall be open to UNSCOM under existing procedures. Again, this includes sites that were previously closed."
But the text of the two-page agreement also includes a U.N. undertaking to "respect legitimate concerns of Iraq relating to national security, sovereignty and dignity." Those are the principal reasons cited in many previous episodes in which Iraq blocked inspectors from entering a site.
One top adviser to Clinton, describing such language as "hortatory" and inconsequential, said: "We're not going to spend a lot of time on exegesis of the text. What we're going to do is support getting the inspectors out there quickly and answering the question."
Officials would not say when they would test the Iraqi acquiescence by urging that inspectors be sent to the problematic sites. Another official, who said U.S. intelligence has forecast that Iraq will probably withhold compliance after the semi-annual renewal of UNSCOM's mandate in April, said Butler's inspectors "had better get out there quickly if they want to give the impression that they have gained from this and not lost."
Fred Eckhart, Annan's spokesman, told reporters during an overnight stopover in Paris last night that the secretary general is "reasonably confident" that the Security Council will accept the secretary general's text.
"There is no ambiguous language," he said. "There is a firm commitment from Iraq to accept the [Security Council] resolutions" mandating disarmament of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them.
In a Baghdad news conference yesterday morning, Aziz stood next to Annan and declared the deal a "great victory" for Iraq in its quest to lift economic sanctions that have accompanied the weapons inspections since 1991. Aziz displayed irritation at the suggestion that Iraq had retreated and snapped at a reporter, "First of all, you don't know what we have agreed upon and don't rush to conclusions."
Leaders of the major Security Council powers, meanwhile, greeted the accord with jubilation.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin took credit for having pushed a political settlement. "From the very beginning, we supported a diplomatic solution of this crisis," Yeltsin said. "Tonight, the issue has been settled. [Saddam] Hussein gave his word."
"We have to have a Security Council resolution that makes it absolutely clear we're not going to be back in this position, playing some game in two or three months' time," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, noting that reports of the agreement call for unhindered access for the arms inspectors. "This is precisely what we've been asking for," he said. "But we have to check the fine print."
The Clinton administration took several opportunities before Annan's trip to convey to him its "red lines" on concessions to Iraq, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spoke to him on at least two occasions while he remained overseas. Some officials around Annan expressed resentment at Albright's public injunction against a "phony deal," but U.S. officials said it was essential to make clear that Clinton reserved the right to reject an unacceptable arrangement.
One senior official said today that the administration is confident it will have a full report of Annan's conversations with Saddam Hussein because "the one thing we have great confidence in is Kofi's integrity."
Staff writer John M. Goshko in New York contributed to this report.
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