Washington, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton is holding off on a threat to strike Iraq to test whether Saddam Hussein keeps his word and permits U.N. inspectors full access to suspected weapons sites.
Clinton said in a statement yesterday the Iraqi leader must back up his promise with action. Under a deal brokered by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Iraqi government has made a written commitment to provide immediate, unrestricted and unconditional access for the U.N. weapons experts.
The president said this pledge, if honored, would allow the inspectors to find and destroy all of Iraq's nuclear programs, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. And, he said, long-term monitoring would guarantee Iraq does not build more of these weapons of mass destruction.
"What really matters is Iraq's compliance, not its stated commitments; not what Iraq says, but what it does," Clinton said. He called on the inspectors "to test and verify" in the weeks ahead.
Clinton warned Saddam Hussein that failure to honor the accord would result in "serious consequences."
To back up the warning, the president said he had ordered U.S. military forces to remain in the Persian Gulf until Washington is satisfied that Iraq is in compliance.
In a question and answer session with reporters, Clinton said that, based on his telephone conversations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other world leaders, "no one seriously believes there can be a breach of this agreement by Iraq without serious consequences."
The U.S. president said this is the first time since the Gulf War cease-fire agreement that Iraq has made an unconditional commitment to open up all suspected weapons sites.
Asked whether Saddam Hussein capitulated on this matter, Clinton said: "I think he has."
Earlier yesterday, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said Clinton, a Democrat, may have been stuck with a poor agreement he has to accept.
Lott said the Clinton administration has found itself in an "awkward position" of either accepting a possibly flawed agreement or going against allies that are now even more strongly against the use of military force than in the past. Lott also said Clinton is lacking a long-term strategy for handling Iraq.
Not so, Clinton said. He noted that since the end of the Gulf War the U.S. strategy has been to keep economic and military sanctions in force against Iraq.
And he signaled that good Iraqi behavior might be rewarded.
Clinton said whether the sanctions strategy would continue to be pursued "depends in no small measure, I believe, on whether this agreement is honored."