Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan are due today to resume discussions on the possible return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. On the surface, there is little to indicate a breakthrough that would allow inspectors to return and lead to the possible lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq. But Sabri's talks with Russian officials ahead of the meeting could signal a new approach to solving the impasse.
United Nations, 1 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Against the backdrop of the continuing crisis in the Middle East, Iraq today resumes high-level talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the issue of weapons inspections and UN sanctions.
There are no expectations of a breakthrough announcement on inspections. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri will resume the talks he began with Annan on 7 March, which both sides described as constructive but which yielded no tangible results.
A number of senior Iraqi officials have said this week that they want the discussions to cover the no-flight zones patrolled by British and U.S. warplanes over Iraq, as well as U.S. threats against Iraq's government.
Annan has repeatedly said the talks must center on the implementation of Security Council resolutions. That means permitting UN inspectors to return to Iraq to verify that Iraq has eliminated its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. The resolutions also call for Iraq to address the issue of more than 600 missing Kuwaitis and other nationals and Kuwaiti property missing since the Gulf War. Once those issues are addressed, sanctions against Iraq could be suspended and then lifted entirely.
Sabri arrives at UN headquarters in New York straight from a visit with Russian Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow. Russia this week reiterated the need for inspections and is believed to be working to move Iraq toward eventually accepting monitors.
Russian Foreign Ministry officials this week also met with Hans Blix, the executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission for Iraq -- known as UNMOVIC.
Blix could be part of a compromise discussed by Iraqi and Russian officials, says Nancy Soderberg, a former top U.S. diplomat at the United Nations and a vice president of the International Crisis Group, an organization that specializes in conflict prevention.
"Most people, I think, don't expect any great breakthroughs tomorrow in the meeting. I think the best outcome that you could expect is an invitation for Blix to go to Iraq and begin a dialogue about the inspectors."
Blix is due to attend the talks at UN headquarters along with Annan and Mohammed El Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Sabri is said to be heading a large delegation including a number of arms experts.
But Soderberg tells RFE/RL it is unclear whether Iraq will commit to any major changes in its position and permit inspections for the first time since December 1998, when the monitors were pulled out of the country ahead of a U.S. and British aerial bombardment.
"Will the Iraqis fully cooperate with inspectors, give them full access, and end this cat-and-mouse game? That is an open question."
Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow have reached agreement on a reform of the UN sanctions program aimed at increasing pressure on Iraq. The reform involves revising the list of goods that are reviewed as part of the oil-for-food program. The new list would focus on goods with a military potential and allow all other goods into Iraq unchecked. The Security Council as a whole could vote on the new list by the end of the week.
The Iraqi-UN talks are scheduled to recess tomorrow (Thursday) so that Annan can attend a meeting on the Middle East in Washington. The talks would resume the following day.
Iraq had initially called for the meetings with Annan without preconditions. But Iraqi officials have expressed growing concern at what they called the "aggression" of the United States and will attempt to make it an issue at the talks this week.
"The New York Times" reported on 28 April that the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush was considering a major air campaign and ground invasion of Iraq -- involving up 250,000 troops -- early in 2003. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, denied any decisions have been made about attacking Iraq.
The official U.S. policy supports "regime change" in Iraq and some members of Bush's cabinet have repeatedly expressed alarm at Iraq's ability to contribute to mass terror attacks against U.S. targets.