U.S. Launches, Then Aborts Airstrikes After Iraq Relents on U.N. Inspections
By Bradley Graham and Howard Schneider
The decision to call off yesterday's strike -- made after the Iraqi offer was sent to the United Nations -- came as B-52 warplanes were already in the air, armed with cruise missiles. The attack was to involve scores of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles as well as fighter jets and support aircraft based on the naval carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower or in the Persian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, defense officials said.
But after considering the Iraqi offer, U.S. officials called Baghdad's move unacceptable because it came with an annex that outlined Iraqi expectations. "We were poised to take military action, and we remain poised to take military action," presidential national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told reporters.
Still, only Britain joined the United States in dismissing the Iraqi offer amid signs that other key nations were willing to accept it. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose exchange of letters with Iraqi officials prompted Baghdad's decision to welcome back the inspectors, called the Iraqi action a "positive development" toward resolving the crisis. Diplomats from Russia, China, France and many Arab countries also described Iraq's move as a positive step.
Iraq submitted the offer in a letter to the U.N. Security Council stating that the inspections could resume, but attached to the letter was a two-page addendum that listed several Iraqi "goals" and triggered the Clinton administration's rejection. The addendum reiterated Iraq's previous terms for a comprehensive review of its compliance with U.N. resolutions and expectations for an easing of economic sanctions.
The Iraqi offer "is neither unequivocal nor unconditional. It is unacceptable," Berger said. "This will only set up a new crisis a few weeks down the road when the review does not meet Iraq's criteria." Declaring the United States wants unequivocal compliance from Iraq, Berger complained that "what we have instead is a letter and particularly an annex that's got more holes than Swiss cheese."
After Berger's remarks, Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, emerged at the United Nations to divorce the contents of the attachment from the letter, which he termed "unconditional and unequivocal." He said the issues raised in the annex consisted of "talking points" intended only as a means of informing the council about Baghdad's views.
The points disturbing U.S. officials and their British allies involve statements in the annex laying out Baghdad's position that a comprehensive review of Iraq's disarmament efforts should be conducted quickly in a period of perhaps no more than seven days; that the burden of proving that Iraq still has prohibited weapons of mass destruction should be on the U.N. Special Commission conducting the weapons searches rather than on Iraq; and that a finding by the council that Iraq has disarmed should be followed by immediate lifting of the sanctions. The annex also said that the Special Commission should be restructured to have more inspectors allegedly not under U.S. influence and that the group's executive chairman, Richard Butler, should be replaced.
While U.S. officials had been aware of the possibility of a last-minute Iraqi reversal of its decision two weeks ago to end all cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors, President Clinton did not halt the planned attack until formal notification from Baghdad had reached the United Nations.
With the prospect of military action still very much alive, Clinton canceled the first leg of a planned trip to Asia so he could monitor the situation in Washington. U.S. officials said the buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf announced last week would continue. A dozen Air Force F-15 fighters from Langley Air Force Base, Va., and a similar number of F-16 jets from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., roared off for the gulf yesterday, as did reconnaissance and electronic warfare planes from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha.
Although most of the additional combat aircraft and warships ordered to the gulf have yet to reach the region, administration officials had been saying for days that the 173 planes and 23 ships already there would be sufficient to do substantial damage to Iraq. Defense officials indicated the plan had been to initiate the attack yesterday and continue it through the week as reinforcements arrived, barring no reversal by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Prompted by a written appeal from Annan that analysts in Baghdad said provided a face-saving way to reverse course, Saddam Hussein and the country's Revolutionary Command Council told Annan the inspectors could resume their work immediately.
"We offer this chance not out of fear of the aggressive American campaign and the threat to commit a new aggression against Iraq, but as an expression of our feeling of responsibility, and in response to your appeal," Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz wrote in a letter to Annan.
The team of about 120 U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq last week, and Butler has said they could be back on the job within 24 hours. The sanctions have been in place since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990; they have remained in force in part to ensure that Iraq complies with U.N. demands that it dismantle biological, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.
Soon after Aziz's letter arrived in New York yesterday morning, Annan said it "seems to be a positive development," but added that the Security Council must decide what to do about it.
At a closed-door council meeting last night to consider the Iraqi response, sources said the Iraqi offer did win support from several of the council's 15 members, including three permanent members -- Russia, China and France -- which have advocated an easing of sanctions. These countries argued for accepting the Iraqi proposal, but were unable to deflect the vehement opposition of the United States and Britain.
The council adjourned shortly before midnight and planned to reconvene this afternoon to continue the debate.
Ambassador Hamdoon presented the council with a letter last night signed by him, as representative of the Iraqi government, officially stating that the points in the annex should not be regarded as conditions or reservations. But U.S. and British diplomats indicated that this would not be enough and said they wanted to see some communication -- probably in the form of a new letter -- signed by a higher ranking Iraqi official, such as Aziz.
Reflecting the mixed international reaction, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk told Reuters news service in Moscow that his country thought Aziz's letter contained a clear message that Iraq was agreeing to allow the U.N. inspectors to renew their work.
"We believe that this opens a real path for political settlement and correspondingly eliminates the possibility of using military force," added Posuvalyuk, whose government has been one of Iraq's strongest sympathizers on the Security Council but strongly criticized Saddam Hussein for breaking off the inspectors' work.
But in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country is contributing forces to the military buildup in the gulf, told reporters that "nothing less than unconditional compliance will do" and joined Washington in dismissing the addendum to Aziz's letter as unacceptable.
If the inspectors are allowed to return, it will end the latest in a series of crises Iraq has provoked since losing the 1991 Persian Gulf War and agreeing to a system of U.N. weapons inspections and monitoring. The ensuing seven-year battle between Saddam Hussein's government and the weapons inspection team began with the Iraqis' extensive efforts to avoid disclosing the details of their weapons program, and has continued with weapons inspectors focusing on an increasingly narrow set of issues to resolve their final doubts about what weapons, components or manufacturing equipment remain.
Return of the inspectors also would clear the way for a full -- and what Iraq hopes will be a final -- review of the country's progress toward dismantling its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons capabilities. That, in turn, could produce the type of timetable for lifting sanctions that Iraq has been demanding.
Although the offer of that review has been on the table since August, when it was suggested by Annan, U.N. and U.S. officials have insisted that Iraq understand there would be no guarantee of relief from sanctions.
The review might certify that Iraq has made substantial progress toward meeting the disarmament goals laid out at the end of the Gulf War, but it also might produce a list of inspections and other actions still needed before that certification can be made. Until the job is finished, U.N. officials say, Iraq will see no easing of the economic embargo that has hamstrung its economy for eight years -- a fact that Iraqi officials implicitly accepted in backing down from the current standoff.
While Iraqi officials publicly attributed their new position yesterday to respect for Annan, and faith that he and other "friends" will ensure a fair review, diplomats and observers in Baghdad speculated that Saddam Hussein was influenced by the growing threat of a military strike and the lack of international sympathy for his abrupt termination of cooperation with U.N. inspectors two weeks ago.
During a similar crisis in February, Iraq retained some international support in the face of threatened U.S. airstrikes, and wound up negotiating a deal with Annan in which Baghdad reaffirmed its willingness to cooperate with weapons inspections. The Security Council also agreed to increase the amount of oil the country could sell to pay for food, medical and other necessary supplies.
This time, however, after summarily halting the arms inspections, Iraq lost the support of French and Russian leaders, and was rebuked by its Arab neighbors.
"I am saddened and burdened by the Iraqi decision," to stop cooperating with the U.N. weapons team, Annan wrote in his Friday letter to Saddam Hussein.
"This crisis was the result of a miscalculation by the Iraqis," said one analyst, "They wanted to push to test the international community. . . . They weren't able to. They had to step back."
Graham reported from Washington, Schneider from Baghdad, Iraq. Staff writer John M. Goshko and correspondent Nora Boustany in New York contributed to this report.
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