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Russia: Yeltsin Fails To Move U.S. On Iraq

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 5 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International diplomacy has gone into top gear on several continents to try and avert the ever more serious possibility of U.S. military action against the recalcitrant government of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.

The United States has remained unmoved, both by strong criticism from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by reports of an offer from Baghdad to open some disputed sites to United Nations weapons inspectors.

Yeltsin's unusually strong and outspoken statement Wednesday, warning the U.S. against embarking on a dangerous course that could spark a global war, seemed only to complicate matters.

Presidential spokesmen in Moscow and Washington hastened to moderate his remarks. Sergei Yastrzhembsky assured the world that it was ridiculous to think Russia might retaliate in the event of an attack on Iraq. And in Washington, Michael McCurry, using similar words, said American journalists had made a ridiculous interpretation of Yeltsin's comment because they did not understand Russian well enough.

At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin was impelled to declare that the U.S. and Russia have "a very strong and constructive relationship."

He said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov after Yeltsin's statement and reaffirmed their understanding that Iraq must comply with weapons inspections mandated by the United Nations.

"The Russians fully share our goal," Rubin said, carefully not mentioning the wide gap between Moscow and Washington on how to achieve this aim.

Albright telephoned Primakov from her airplane before landing in Washington early Wednesday from a trip to Europe and the Middle East to talk about the situation.

Rubin said she also spoke with her counterparts in Britain, France, Turkey and other countries.

He gave no details but said Albright is no more optimistic now than a few days ago that diplomacy can succeed in resolving the Iraqi crisis.

She was due to report to President Bill Clinton late Wednesday on the results of her trip.

Clinton made a statement on Iraq at an unrelated event at the White House, partly in response to Yeltsin's surprise remarks.

The U.S. President said he is encouraged by what he called "a strong consensus" of the international community that Iraq must comply with all the UN Security Council resolutions.

He stressed that the U.S. would prefer "a genuine diplomatic solution," but made clear there would be no compromise in the U.S. position.

Clinton said "one way or the other, we are determined to deny Iraq the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them -- that is our bottom line."

The United States has rejected Baghdad's latest offer to allow UN inspectors into some of the prohibited sites, saying the proposal did not meet the very simple and clear standard of full and unconditional compliance with the United Nations mandate.

At the State Department, Rubin said "that is the standard that must be met." Choosing his words with the utmost care, Rubin added: "the Iraqis seem to be moving toward some recognition that the blocking of so-called presidential sites is untenable."

Rubin said that makes it all the more necessary for the U.S. and the international community to stand firm on its insistence on full and unconditional compliance.

He welcomed the flurry of diplomacy that is now taking place in Baghdad. French and Russian envoys are there, as well as the Turkish foreign minister and top diplomats from several African and Arab countries.

Rubin said they are united in efforts to persuade Saddam Hussein that he must fully comply with the weapons inspections. Rubin said the U.S. has no problem with the messengers as long as the message is getting through but said the U.S. is not optimistic that Iraq will reverse its course.

He confirmed that a U.S. delegation in Turkey has been discussing military cooperation and conditions for various actions on Iraq. Rubin gave no details but said the U.S. is confident it will have the support it needs if necessary.

Iraq is expected to be a major issue on the agenda for talks Clinton will be having today (Thursday) with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is on an official visit to Washington. Blair's spokesman said in London Tuesday that Britain stands firmly with the U.S. on the policy toward Iraq.

In Nagano, Japan, meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee appealed to nations of the world to avoid military confrontation during the Winter Olympics, scheduled to get underway this weekend.