United Nations, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.N. Security Council may vote today (Monday) on a plan to return international weapons inspectors to Iraq and establish a complicated mechanism that could lead to the suspension of economic sanctions against Baghdad.
Differences between the United States and Russia on what would trigger a sanctions suspensions has thrown the outcome of the vote in doubt, however. Russia could veto the plan. Western diplomats say if Moscow does not abstain instead, the vote could be put off.
On Friday, the council agreed to allow Iraq to resume limited oil exports for six months while continuing negotiations on the larger questions of returning the inspectors and suspending the sanctions.
The so-called food-for-oil program was adopted unanimously, a plan that permits Baghdad to sell more than $5 billion of oil for renewable six month periods.
The proceeds are sent to a UN escrow account, from which humanitarian supplies are bought by the UN and distributed to the Iraqi population. Average Iraqis have been suffering from UN sanctions imposed on its government after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq had been selling no oil for the past month after refusing to agree to extensions of just three weeks. The council had granted the shorter extensions as it struggled to work out a plan to send weapons inspectors back to Iraq after a year's absence.
Economic sanctions cannot be permanently lifted until the UN declares Iraq free of its nuclear, biological, chemical and long-range missile programs and incapable of easily starting them up again.
How the UN determines this has been at the heart of the controversy between the U.S. and Russia over suspending sanctions. The sticking point is the so-called trigger for suspension: how long do the inspectors have to be on the ground and what must they accomplish.
The Russians have proposed suspending sanctions 60 days after weapons inspectors arrive again in the country and make progress. Moscow had previously demanded suspension as soon as new inspectors arrived.
The U.S. wants Iraq to cooperate with the new inspections for at least 180 days and complete certain disarmament tasks before considering suspension. Britain has proposed a 120-day period.
In a concession to Moscow, Britain and U.S. have agreed to set up a college of experts to determine Iraq's compliance with the new inspectors, who will be known as UNMOVIC, or the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission.
Under the old Special Commission of inspectors, the UNSCOM director had final say.
Even if sanctions are suspended, they can be reimposed after every 120-day review unless the council decides otherwise. This will allow Washington to slap the embargo back on Baghdad if it misbehaves.
Peter Burleigh, U.S. deputy representative to the UN, said: "There are substantive discussions around the trigger-mechanism question, what exactly would be required of Iraq to trigger suspension of sanctions."
After months of dragging their feet, the council last week finally got into gear, said Jerermy Greenstock, Britian's U.N. ambassador. He said: "The council realizes it is doing very serious business now."
Even if the council reaches consensus, Iraq is rejecting any plan that merely suspends sanctions. Baghdad is demanding they be lifted indefinitely. Though the inspectors would have the legal right to return to Iraq without the government's permission such a mission would be dangerous, diplomats say.
If Iraq refuses to accept inspectors it could provoke a new crisis with the U.S., the diplomats added.
The old inspection team left Iraq last December ahead of U.S. and British air strikes that were intended to force Iraqi cooperation. Instead, in a display of brinkmanship, Iraq decided never to allow the inspectors back again.
UN officials say even if Baghdad permits inspectors to return it could take up to a year to actually get them on the ground. At that time the Security Council would also have to decide whether Iraq keeps all oil sale proceeds or whether they go back into the UN escrow account.
Moscow has been pushing for a suspension of Iraq's sanctions since it is owed more than $7 billion by Baghdad, mostly from Soviet-era arms sales. If proceeds go into an escrow account the Russians would likely not get repaid.
Burleigh said U.S.-Russian discussions on Iraq, which included phone conversations between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, have not touched on this issue.
He said: "Very high-level, intensive consultations continue amongst council members with a view to come to closure on a text as early as possible."
Washington deems returning weapons inspectors to Iraq urgent because of fears President Saddam Hussein is again building weapons of mass destruction.
Burleigh said the U.S. does not have full knowledge of what is going on in Iraq so the inspectors should be sent back as soon as possible.