A year after U.N. weapons inspectors left Baghdad on the eve of American and British airstrikes, the Security Council voted today to create a new inspection agency to complete the disarmament of Iraq and, possibly, set the stage for suspending the trade embargo that has ruined its economy.

U.S. diplomats hailed the resolution as a key step toward forcing Iraq to permit the return of inspectors whose presence they regard as crucial to preventing Saddam Hussein's government from developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

But their victory was hardly complete. Of the five permanent members of the council, only the United States and Britain voted in favor of the resolution; France, Russia and China abstained. Critics in Washington said that even if Iraq decides to admit new inspectors--an outcome that is far from assured--the council's failure to achieve unanimity on the resolution could compromise their effectiveness and strengthen the hand of those who would like to see sanctions eased or eliminated.

During the months of diplomatic maneuvering that culminated in yesterday's vote, the United States and Britain agreed to a number of concessions to make the new arms agency--known as the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)--more palatable to Iraq and its allies on the council.

The resolution, for example, stipulates that the inspectors be "drawn from the broadest possible geographical base," creates a new "college of commissioners" to oversee their work and is ambiguous about what Iraq must do to win a suspension of the sanctions. It defers many hard questions, such as the identity of the agency's new chairman and the terms under which its inspectors would return to Baghdad.

"The danger is that you end up with inspection-lite," said Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and the top Middle East specialist in the Bush White House. "[If] the inspections come up with nothing, then we're faced with even greater pressure to lift sanctions. . . . We will be on the defensive big-time."

Clinton administration officials, however, said they built safeguards into the resolution to ensure that the new agency will have the same powers enjoyed by its predecessor, known as UNSCOM. "We had absolutely no intention of creating a Potemkin UNSCOM," a senior official said.

The resolution, the official said, "puts the leverage in our camp" because "it recognizes that Iraq is not disarmed, that Iraq has not fulfilled any of its obligations." Moreover, he noted, the resolution specifies that Iraq must fulfill "key disarmament tasks" before the sanctions can be suspended--a step that in any event could be vetoed by the United States.

Russia had argued that Iraq should be required only to show "progress" toward disarmament, a formulation that Washington rejected as unacceptably vague.

"We've got to make sure we get a good executive chairman, a good set of commissioners and a good group of [inspectors], but we believe we can do that," the official said. "We believe we got the resolution we needed."

Rolf Ekeus, UNSCOM's first chairman and now Sweden's ambassador to Washington, said it is too early to judge the new inspection system. "I don't want to denigrate the quality of the resolution because I know how painful it has been to get it together, but it is so open in its possibilities," he said. "Strong inspections are what we should look for, and I think the resolution gives space for that--provided it is implemented in full."

Iraqi officials have said for months that they would not permit the return of inspectors, whom they have long denounced as U.S. and Israeli spies. But administration officials expressed confidence that Saddam will allow the inspections to resume once he realizes the council will not agree to ease sanctions otherwise.

The sanctions against Iraq were imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and can be lifted only after the country demonstrates that it has rid itself of programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. But international support for the sanctions regime has eroded in the face of widespread suffering. The United States has sought to preserve the sanctions while giving Iraq some incentive to cooperate with inspections.

The result was yesterday's resolution, which was supported by 11 of the council's 15 members. Malaysia joined the three permanent council members in abstaining.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, warned that Moscow would not allow the council to coerce Baghdad into cooperating. Added China's ambassador, Qin Huasun: "It is highly questionable whether the draft resolution before us could ever be implemented."

As a sweetener for Iraq and its allies, the resolution lifts the cap on the volume of oil Iraq can sell to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies. It asks the U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, to issue a report early next year with recommendations that could authorize hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs to Iraq's deteriorating oil industry.

On the other hand, U.S. and British officials noted that the resolution legally obligates all council members, even those who did not vote for it, to support the effort to get inspectors back into Iraq. "This resolution is now the law of the globe," said Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, who led the diplomatic effort to pass the resolution.

The chief American negotiator, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Peter Burleigh, noted that even the critics of the resolution pledged to use their influence with Iraq to secure cooperation with the new arms agency. And while Russia and China have condemned last year's U.S. and British air raids on Iraq, their envoys said today that Baghdad needs to go along with the resolution. "We are not trying to whitewash Iraq," said Lavrov. "We believe it must resume cooperation."

The resolution demands that Iraq grant the new inspectors "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to any and all areas, facilities, equipment, records and means of transport they wish to inspect." In order for the sanctions to be suspended, Iraq must provide "cooperation in all respects" to U.N. inspectors seeking to resolve "key remaining disarmament tasks," it says.

If Iraq meets those requirements, the sanctions barring imports of civilian goods could be suspended for renewable periods of 120 days. U.S. officials say Iraq still must comply with a long list of Security Council disarmament resolutions before sanctions can be lifted permanently.

Some disarmament experts, however, voiced concern that the negotiations may have produced a weak inspection agency. "They have kicked so many cans down the road that they will have to be able to fight at every point along this process," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Key Points of the Resolution

Arms control

The new arms watchdog, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, will replace the U.N. Special Commission. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has 30 days to appoint UNMOVIC's executive chairman.

Sanctions suspension

Sanctions could be suspended by a vote of the Security Council if UNMOVIC reports Iraq has completed key disarmament tasks and cooperated with inspectors for a 120-day test period. The benchmarks for cooperation are left deliberately vague in the resolution. Any suspension would have to be renewed every 120 days.

Oil exports

The cap is lifted on how much oil Iraq can sell, now set at $5.26 billion every six months under an "oil-for-food" program.

Imports

The resolution will streamline procedures for importing food, medical supplies, agricultural equipment and educational items into Iraq. A list of approved goods will be drawn up without referring each item for approval, but Iraq's oil revenues will still be deposited in an escrow account to pay for the goods.

Air travel

Iraq, though still under an air embargo, can fly planes in the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

SOURCE: Reuters