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1998 In Review: Iraq-UN Crisis Remains Unresolved

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 9 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After coming twice to the brink of military action in 1998, the crisis between Iraq and UN arms inspectors ends the year as it began, with tensions high and no final resolution in sight.

Over the past 12 months, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein repeatedly threatened to stop cooperating with weapons inspectors as he pressured the UN to end punitive sanctions imposed on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The threats set off a circular argument which only spun tensions higher. The UN Security Council responded that the sanctions are in place to pressure Saddam to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programs, so they cannot be lifted until arms inspectors certify he has done so. And for that, the arms inspectors need Saddam's cooperation.

The tension first came to a head in mid-January, when Saddam accused U.S. experts with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) on disarming Iraq of spying and banned them from working in the country. Within weeks, he stiffened his position to say Iraq also would not allow arms monitors to enter presidential palaces, which inspectors suspect of being arms facilities.

William Quant, an expert on the Middle East at the Brookings Institute in Washington, says Saddam was emboldened to challenge the UN over the arms inspections at the start of the year because he believed the international consensus on policing Iraq was weakening.

"I think there were several reasons for him to conclude in the early part of this year that perhaps the consensus was weaker. There was more open discussion of the negative effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people, there was an outspoken concern about the rather aggressive and highly public statements of some members of the UNSCOM mission, and I think it is quite typical of Saddam Hussein to probe and see how deep some of these differences may be. So yes, the perception of some disagreement within the Security Council and within the anti-Iraq coalition did tempt him to make a move at the early part of the year."

The differences within the Security Council over Iraq became public as Russia, China and France -- joined by most Arab states -- repeatedly called for solving the crisis diplomatically. That left the United States and Britain alone in threatening to use force against Iraq.

As Washington refined plans for air strikes, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made a last minute dash to Baghdad. He met with Iraqi officials on February 22 and concluded an agreement which was initially hailed by all sides.

Annan agreed with Iraqi officials that senior diplomats from a number of countries would join weapons inspectors on visits to presidential sites and mediate in any disagreements over their searches. He also agreed that the UN would undertake a review of Iraq's compliance in disarming, a step which he said would give Iraq "a light at the end of the tunnel" that sanctions one day would be lifted. But Annan's diplomatic solution frayed during the summer as UN arms inspectors argued Iraq was still far from proving its disarmament in the biological and chemical weapons fields. Monitors for Iraq's suspected nuclear program, meanwhile, said they had found no evidence Iraq has nuclear arms or related materials, but that their information on past programs was incomplete.

The next crisis was not long in coming. By August 5, an angry Iraq again halted most cooperation with arms inspectors. It conditioned any renewal of cooperation on the Security Council pledging that the promised review of Iraqi compliance would directly lead to the lifting of sanctions, a condition the Security Council called unacceptable. A showdown was assured when Saddam applied still more pressure in October by cutting off all cooperation in arms monitoring.

Quant says that Saddam hoped to again exploit the international community's divisions over Iraq and win concessions, but that he failed to recognize its patience was running out.

The countries which pushed for a diplomatic solution in February felt betrayed as Saddam followed up their efforts with new Iraqi ultimatums just months later. And Annan, who had mediated the dispute months earlier, made no public effort to do so a second time.

William Quant: "I think two things did change ... One was that the United States by foregoing military action in the early part of the year probably gained some credits with the French and the Russians, for example, ... the United States got something in return for going along with the diplomatic effort the first time, namely, greater support for the threat of force if the diplomatic solution (didn't) work ... And then secondly, although I think people still are concerned with what happens to Iraqis if sanctions drag on, the fact of the matter is that the oil for food and medicines program has substantially expanded, there is considerably more money available to Iraq to buy food and medicine and so the sanctions can't be blamed for bringing about the (impoverishment) of the Iraqi people in the same way they might have been a year ago.

The level of impatience with Saddam became clear as Washington and London again readied air strikes last month and the Arab Gulf states, plus Egypt and Syria, declared Baghdad alone was to blame for any force used against it. U.S. planes were reportedly already in the air and ready to strike when Saddam backed down and notified the Security Council that Iraq would again cooperate with inspections after all.

The second crisis ended peacefully but with little resolved. The arms inspectors have returned but both Saddam and the United States have clearly indicated neither side considers the dispute resolved.

At year's end, Iraqi officials are again accusing arms inspectors of seeking to provoke a new crisis by demanding more information about weapons programs.

At the same time, Washington is urging the international community to stay vigilant in dealing with Baghdad and remains prepared to take military action to force Iraqi cooperation.