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The impasse of Iraq

The UN security council meets this week to discuss one of its most
intractable problems but there seems little hope of consensus

Ian Black, Diplomatic Editor
Thursday July 1, 1999

Jan 1991 Gulf war
Apr 1991 Resolution 687 orders destruction of weapons
Jun 1991 Unscom starts first chemical weapons inspection
Feb 1992 Security Council condemns lack of full compliance
Jan 1993 Air raids on southern Iraq by France, UK and the US
Jun 1994 Unscom destroys chemical warfare agents
Jul 1995 Iraq admits offensive biological weapons programme
Nov 1995 Jordan intercepts missile components for Iraq
Jun 1997 Iraq again blocks Unscom from certain sites
Oct 1997 Iraq refuses to deal with US personnel working for Unscom
Nov 1997 Resolution 1137 condemns continued violation by Iraq
Nov 1997 Russians secure return of Unscom
Jan 1998 Iraq continues to block inspection teams
Feb 1998 Kofi Annan visits Iraq
Oct 1998 Iraq ends all forms of interaction with Unscom
Nov 1998 Resolution 1205 unanimously condemns Iraq
Dec 1998 Unscom withdraws staff. Renewed bombing
Unemployed international arms control experts have a rare job opportunity
coming up: the United Nations needs someone to oversee the disarmament of
Iraq, close to a decade after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

The successful candidate will need enormous patience and an impressive CV.
Political skills will be as important as understanding ballistic missiles
and chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, because running the proposed
UN commission on inspection and monitoring (Uncim) is linked umbilically to
the lifting of punitive sanctions.

With the UN security council meeting this week for its first discussion in
months on how to find a way out of the impasse, prospects for early
agreement on the way forward are depressingly poor. If you thought securing
consensus on the Kosovo crisis was difficult - watch this space.

Richard Butler, the outgoing chairman of the UN special commission (Unscom),
knows just how difficult. He finally retired yesterday, bruised by
accusations that the CIA and Britain's MI6 piggy-backed on his inspectors'
legitimate work of tracking down, destroying and monitoring Iraq's once
formidable arsenal of biological and chemical weapons to pry secrets from
the dark heart of the Ba'athist regime.

Uncim is meant to do the same difficult job under a soothingly anodyne name
and a less outspoken chairman. It is to be less suscepti ble to charges of
being hijacked by Washington and London for their own nefarious purposes.
Most important of all, it is meant finally to get the task finished.

Iraq insists hotly that it has already disarmed completely and so the
US-British claim that it has not is merely an excuse for maintaining the
sanctions they hope will bring down the regime. Russia and China agree with
Iraq - for the same sort of reasons they sided with Yugoslavia over Kosovo -
but still acknowledge that a final accounting must take place. France is
thinking about lucrative post-sanctions oil deals and deeply resents the
Anglo-saxon hard line.

British diplomats argue that the security council must unite around a set of
minimum demands or Saddam will exploit differences to buy time and provoke
new crises - as he has so often. And divisions are as sharp as ever - worse,
perhaps, in the post-Kosovo constellation. Discussions began on Monday on a
British-Dutch proposal that would suspend sanctions only on Iraqi oil
exports - for renewable periods - while a French draft proposes to suspend
the embargoes on most imports as well. Moscow and Beijing want the carrot to
be large, juicy and immediate; they are calling for the oil export embargo
to be suspended as soon as Iraq allows UN inspectors to return to work.

These are important manoeuvres, but Iraq underlines the old chestnut that
the world, never mind the media, only has the concentration to handle one
crisis at a time.

Deadlock set in last December, after Operation Desert Fox was launched by
the US and Britain to punish Baghdad's repeated non-compliance with the UN.
It was then that the Unscom teams were withdrawn and not allowed back. It
was a decision akin to the fateful one that removed the civilian observers
from Kosovo to allow Nato air strikes to go ahead.

Bold but uncheckable claims were made about the degree of damage inflicted
on Iraq's security forces and the weapons Saddam seems determined to keep.
Since then, low-level war has gone on. Nearly every day as Nato planes
roamed the skies over Yugoslavia, US and British jets were blasting Iraqi
radar and anti-aircraft sites.

Without international consensus, this double act cannot go on indefinitely.
The grand coalition that ejected Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 was possible
because it had the blessing of the dying Soviet Union. Now, in a more
divided world, diplomacy must paper over the cracks and move on.

The chief victims are millions of ordinary Iraqis - malnourished and
humiliated because sanctions work in cruel combination with a brutal regime.
George Galloway, the Labour MP, was right to ask recently what was the point
of allowing diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera medicines into Iraq while banning
equipment to repair the water and sanitation system whose collapse has bred
epidemics of water-borne disease. But the UN says Saddam has stockpiled
medicines that his people desperately need: what is the point?

Recent weeks have seen reports of intensifying resistance activity,
especially in the Basra area. Intriguingly, exile sources speak of a falling
out between Saddam's powerful son Qusay and Ali Hassan al-Majid, the
notorious "Chemical Ali" who killed thousands of Kurds with those very
weapons the UN is tasked to destroy.

Iraq was quick to reject Britain's middle-way approach as refinement to
prolonged torture. But it does offer a chance of a way out of the paralysis
that has seized the security council.

Saddam Hussein still rules in Baghdad - a lesson and a taunt for those who
predict that Slobodan Milosevic will fall - and his people still suffer. Two
things need to happen: the security council must agree on what to do. And
Iraq must comply. The alternative is continued suffering and the further
erosion of the credibility of the only world body we have.

Ian Black is the Guardian's diplomatic editor.

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