|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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In two mindsUN chief Annan and Iraq's foreign minister will meet today amid mixed signals from Baghdad as to its readiness for a conditional return of weapons' inspectors, writes Michael Jansen
A few observers believe that today's meeting between Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan could eventually lead to a trade-off involving a return of inspectors for a relaxation of sanctions.
Hans Blix, the head of the UN agency monitoring Iraq's weapons programme, will also be present at the meeting. This will be the first time Blix will take part in the sporadic dialogue between Baghdad and the United Nations since his appointment three years ago. He will be sitting beside Annan when the two meet Sabri to discuss the resumption of inspections, interrupted after the United States launched a massive four-day attack against Iraq in late December, 1998, codenamed Desert Fox.
Ahead of the meeting, Iraq appeared to indicate it is prepared to end its opposition to the return of inspectors who left Baghdad shortly before the US attack, and were dubbed by the Iraqi government as "spies." On 1 March, an unidentified government spokesman was quoted in the official daily Al-Thawra as saying that Baghdad was prepared "right now" to receive a British team and allow it to go anywhere in the country to search for banned weapons of mass destruction.
The so-called Iraqi "initiative" came after sharp statements by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, accusing Iraq of continuing to produce weapons of mass destruction. Both the US and Britain rebuffed the Iraqi proposal.
While Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Al- Douri called this a "very positive gesture," Blix said that his agency was the only body trained and mandated by the Security Council to "carry out effective and correct inspections." He said that it was in Iraq's interest to have "credible" inspections but made the point that the return of inspectors did not mean an automatic lifting of sanctions. In December 1999, the Council adopted a resolution, No 1248, suggesting the suspension of sanctions for renewable 120-day periods if inspectors reported that Baghdad was cooperating in the process of disarmament. Iraq rejected this resolution, said it had complied with Council resolutions and demanded the total and unconditional lifting of sanctions.
Al-Douri said that Sabri's talks would involve issues other than arms inspection, with the aim of reaching a "package deal" during April.
Another issue on the agenda will be the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iraq, Andreas Mavromatis, who paid a visit to the country last month, the first in nine years. On his return to Nicosia, Mavromatis, a former Cypriot diplomat, described his talks as "the first step in a proposed constructive dialogue." Al- Douri also signalled that Iraq could accept a shortened list of prohibited imports appended to the resolution providing for the renewal of the oil-for-food programme in June 2002.
This could encourage Russia, Iraq's ally on the Council, to work with the US to come up with a list acceptable to everyone.
This softening of the Iraqi stance comes at a time when Washington and London are reportedly preparing for a military campaign aiming to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Blair said on Sunday he would be discussing what to do about the threat posed by Iraq when he meets President George Bush next month. The Iraqi government, he asserted, was "capable of using" weapons of mass destruction if it acquired the means. Earlier in the week British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon asserted, "I am confident that if the right conditions were set out, we would support the United States."
The Bush administration, energised by its crusade against the "axis of evil" grouping Iraq, Iran and North Korea, announced it intends to sponsor a convention of 200 exiled Iraqi army officers organised by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in the spring. The aim of the gathering, which is to be addressed by chief Pentagon hawk Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is to obtain their input on the US plan to oust the Iraqi government.
This plan involves the bombing of strategic targets and a two-pronged invasion by large numbers of US troops augmented by Shi'a opposition forces moving in from Kuwait in the south and by Kurdish irregulars based in the "safe haven" in the north.
For the present, this scheme is impractical. The Bush administration has not yet given the INC funds to operate inside Iraq or provided its forces with military training. The two key Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barazani, have expressed reluctance to participate in a new uprising unless success is guaranteed. Furthermore, Bush's inclusion of Iran in his "axis of evil" has antagonised the leading Shi'ite opposition group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran.
Nevertheless, it is being suggested that the onslaught on Iraq could begin in September -- perhaps even on 11 September, the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, as suggested in recent US press reports.
An autumn "window" would mean that the intense heat of the desert summer would have abated and the US would have replenished some weapons inventories depleted during the Afghan war. However, more realistic sources say it could take as long as a year to manufacture enough precision guided 1,000-pound bombs for use in an attack on Iraq and to mobilise the variables needed to conduct a campaign.
Meanwhile, Washington will continue to put pressure on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions and on Council members Russia, China and France to go along with the US "smart sanctions" plan due to be introduced, once again, at the end of May. During his coming tour of regional capitals, US Vice President Dick Cheney, another administration hawk, is expected to try to reassure Arab leaders that no imminent attack is contemplated and to listen to their concerns. He may also appeal to Arab leaders not to formalise their opposition to US military action at the Arab summit scheduled for 27-28 March.
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