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      Clinton Says Iraqis Have 'Backed Down'

    By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, November 16, 1998; Page A01

    The latest threat of war between the United States and Iraq receded yesterday as President Clinton announced that Iraq had "backed down" and pledged full cooperation with United Nations arms inspectors. But Clinton warned that military force could still be used if Baghdad does not comply with a series of conditions he laid out.

    "Let me be clear: Iraq has backed down, but that is not enough," Clinton said in the White House briefing room yesterday morning after canceling a U.S. military attack. "Now Iraq must live up to its obligations."

    Recalling a history of broken promises, Clinton laid out five demands for Iraq to prove its good faith, including giving inspectors unfettered access to any sites authorized by the United Nations and turning over documents related to its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. He also called for "a new government" in Iraq, vowing to "intensify" U.S. support for opposition groups aiming to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

    The president's decision to accept and test Baghdad's latest assurances of cooperation ended for the moment the prospect of a violent confrontation. For the second day in a row, Clinton aborted a punishing strike against Iraq, this time ordering U.S. warships and planes to stand down altogether shortly before 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

    Even as inspectors prepared to return to Baghdad on Tuesday, though, the president kept a muscular military presence in the region. Few in Washington or other capitals held out much hope that the truce offered any long-term solution to the repeated cycles of provocation and retreat. As the White House considered its next steps, it struggled with questions such as how to judge whether Iraq's cooperation is adequate, how long to keep the latest U.S. military buildup in place and whether Clinton should proceed with the rest of an abbreviated trip to Asia on Tuesday.

    The tenuous nature of the truce became evident when it seemed to be unraveling just hours after Clinton's televised statement. During an interview on CNN, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appeared to disavow the commitments made in two letters that led the president to call off the attack. At the urging of U.S. diplomats, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Aziz, reporting back that Aziz said he was misinterpreted and stood by those commitments.

    Annan appeared weary of the topsy-turvy nature of the situation. "I sincerely hope there won't be a next time," he said. "I'm not sure that if there is a next time, we would even have time for further diplomatic initiatives and appeals." He added that the "word frustration came up" so often during U.N. Security Council deliberations that "when historians write about this period, they will probably describe it as one of frustration."

    With Clinton's agreement, the Security Council decided last night to send the U.N. weapons inspectors and humanitarian aid workers back to Baghdad to resume work and test Iraq's promises of renewed cooperation. Annan praised Clinton for "the difficult and courageous decision" to call off the military strike and called Iraq's agreement to resume cooperation with U.N. weapons inspections "a victory for diplomacy and resolve."

    Richard Butler, executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), said that he would prepare immediately to send back the more than 100 inspectors, who were withdrawn to Bahrain on Friday, and that he would travel to Baghdad on Tuesday to oversee the resumption of inspection work.

    Benon Savan, the U.N. official in charge of monitoring relief supplies under a program that allows Iraq to sell restricted amounts of oil to get money for food purchases, said the humanitarian workers would begin returning to Iraq today. "I expect to have them all back within 24 hours," he said.

    In grudgingly accepting Iraq's latest promises, Clinton continued to talk tough, pointedly calling for a "new government" in Baghdad and embracing a congressional plan that envisions providing $97 million in military aid to Iraqi opposition groups.

    "This crisis . . . demonstrates, unfortunately once again, that Saddam Hussein remains an impediment to the well-being of his people and a threat to the peace of his region and the security of the world," Clinton said. "Over the long term, the best way to address that threat is through a government in Baghdad -- a new government -- that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them, [and] that is committed to peace in the region."

    Noting past efforts to strengthen Saddam Hussein's domestic enemies, Clinton said he will "intensify that effort," specifically citing the recently enacted Iraq Liberation Act, which authorizes but does not require the president to provide arms, equipment and training to a broad-based organization pushing for democracy.

    While the administration has helped Iraqi opposition groups episodically and made little secret of its desire for Saddam Hussein's ouster, Clinton generally has not been so direct about his hopes to topple the Iraqi leader, who has frustrated him throughout his presidency.

    Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters that Clinton was not expressly advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But another U.S. official said privately later that the "new government" phrasing was an "important shift" in presidential rhetoric intended to send a message that building up internal opposition will be a higher priority again.

    Still, administration officials emphasized political ways they could help the opposition rather than direct military aid, in large part because they do not believe there are any viable groups now that could remove Saddam Hussein. "It's not something that we expect to happen overnight," said a senior administration official.

    The nuances provided little comfort to Baghdad, though. "I have to condemn, strongly, the statement of President Clinton regarding the plans of his government to overthrow the government of Iraq," Aziz told CNN. "This is a flagrant violation of the Security Council resolutions as well as international law."

    The latest crisis had its origins in Baghdad's Aug. 5 decision to cut off field inspections by UNSCOM charged with overseeing the destruction of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capability. On Oct. 31, Iraq suspended all cooperation with UNSCOM, forbidding even the monitoring it had been allowing for the last three months.

    Clinton issued an order Friday night setting in motion the machinery for an attack the next day, only to pull back Saturday morning when reports came that Aziz had sent a letter to Annan backing down less than an hour before the first missiles would have struck.

    Senior administration officials said yesterday that the president did not call off the attack entirely at that time, but only paused and then "recocked the gun" by ordering military forces to begin the process for a strike all over again so that it would take place later in the weekend. Without a countermanding order by the president, the attack would have gone forward with no further authorization necessary, officials said.

    In the meantime, Clinton declared Aziz's Saturday morning letter unacceptable because it included an annex listing a variety of conditions, including Iraq's demand for a review of economic sanctions that would lead to their quick removal.

    Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, tried to quell U.S. opposition by sending another letter that arrived at the White House at 7:20 p.m. Saturday making clear that the annex was a wish list and not a set of conditions for cooperation with inspectors. Clinton deemed that inadequate as well and U.S. officials said British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that the Iraqis explicitly rescind the Aug. 5 and Oct. 31 decisions, a demand they endorsed.

    At 9:06 p.m. Saturday, a second version of Hamdoon's letter arrived at the White House, this time adding a paragraph saying that "the previous decisions concerning restricting or suspending cooperation with UNSCOM . . . have become void, and that UNSCOM . . . can immediately resume all their activities."

    Over the next several hours, Clinton consulted with Blair and French President Jacques Chirac as well as Vice President Gore and other senior advisers. At 3 a.m. yesterday, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger consulted with Annan to make sure that he viewed the Iraqi letters as unqualified assurances. Shortly before the president left for the White House residence at 3:30 a.m., aides said, he authorized Berger to tell the Pentagon to call off the attack.

    Clinton said yesterday he decided not to go through with the strike despite his distrust of Saddam Hussein because any attack would have meant inspectors would never return to Iraq.

    A military strike would "significantly degrade" Iraq's weapons-building capacity, he said, "but that would also mark the end of UNSCOM. So we would delay it but we would then have no oversight, no insight, no involvement in what is going on within Iraq."

    Advisers said they were also convinced that following through with the attack would have fractured the coalition assembled against Iraq, which they believed was the strongest it has been since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. With Russia, France and other countries pressing for a peaceful resolution, Clinton advisers believed the focus would have turned away from Saddam Hussein's intransigence and instead kindled an international debate about the propriety of the use of force.

    "We have to be able to take yes for an answer," Berger said. Now he said the task will be "to test that and see whether UNSCOM can get back in and do its job."

    Annan's warm words of praise for Clinton yesterday were regarded by U.N. diplomats as a sign that he and Washington were putting aside the annoyances that flared briefly on Saturday after the secretary general received Aziz's letter. Annan initially reacted by calling the letter "a positive development" and said he would immediately order the humanitarian aid workers to return, only to find Washington condemning the Iraqi statement as a sham.

    U.N. sources close to the secretary general said he had made his original assessment of the Iraqi proposal on the basis of information he received from his personal representative in Baghdad, Prakash Shah, that it came without conditions. "Unfortunately, he didn't realize that the United States wasn't that ready to ease the crisis and he stuck his neck out further than seems wise in retrospect," one source said. U.S. officials said last night they believed the situation had turned out well and stressed that there were no lingering tensions between them and Annan.

    Given the continued uncertainty about Iraq's compliance, U.S. officials were reluctant to order back home any of the extra forces that had begun to flow to the Persian Gulf since Clinton authorized a near-doubling of the U.S. firepower there last week. But Pentagon officials appeared determined to avoid a repeat of last winter, when a similar costly buildup was sustained for several months after tensions with Iraq had subsided.

    Officials settled for a kind of halfway measure yesterday. The Pentagon announced that it would hold in place those extra forces that had reached the region or intermediate bases in Europe but would not continue to move other troops that had been scheduled to go.

    Staff writers Bradley Graham in Washington and John M. Goshko at the United Nations contributed to this report.


    President Clinton, in his news conference yesterday, said that Iraq's unconditional commitment to resume cooperation with weapons inspectors means:

    * Iraq "must resolve all outstanding issues raised" by the United Nations Special Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, such as discrepancies between what weapons inspectors believe Iraq had produced and what Iraq said it had produced.

    * Iraq "must give inspectors unfettered access to inspect and to monitor all sites they choose, with no restrictions or qualifications, consistent with the memorandum of understanding Iraq itself signed with [U.N.] Secretary General [Kofi] Annan in February."

    * Iraq "must turn over all relevant documents."

    * Iraq "must accept all weapons of mass destruction-related resolutions" from the United Nations.

    * Iraq must not interfere with the independence or the professional expertise of the weapons inspectors.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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