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Iraq: Inspections, Vienna Talks Are Secondary To Political Events

  • Charles Recknagel

As United Nations arms monitors and Iraqi representatives continue meeting today in Vienna, there are indications that Baghdad is smoothing the way for inspection teams to return soon. But the meetings are taking place against a backdrop of political events elsewhere that could do far more to determine when and how the arms inspectors will return than anything decided in the Vienna talks.

Prague, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As United Nations arms inspectors meet with Iraqi officials responsible for disarmament, both sides say they are making progress in resolving the practical issues of how to get the inspectors back to work in Iraq.

Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix told reporters this morning in Vienna -- where the talks are in their second day -- that the meeting is covering such issues as reopening UN offices in Baghdad, obtaining landing rights for aircraft, and securing agreements regarding transportation, accommodation, and escorts for inspection teams. "We are going through, systematically, the practical arrangements -- from the arrival of inspectors, how they get into Iraq, [to] how we set up our offices, to refurbish it, and how inspections go out in the field -- all the practical things that are necessary," Blix said.

Blix also said that the talks were aimed at resolving such issues with Baghdad now -- before the inspectors resume work -- so that they won't slow the inspectors' progress later. Blix's arms-inspection team, known as the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), is tasked with assuring Iraq has no chemical or biological weapons or means, such as missiles, by which to deliver them. "It is better to have discussions, and these are discussions here [in Vienna], than to have discussions when you arrive [in Iraq]. Discussions in the field are not desirable. You want things to be going well then. That's why we are talking here, to avoid such things. So, we'll see and find out whether we can have assurance, to the extent that we can foresee what will happen if we go for inspections," Blix said.

Another top UN official at the talks, Mohammad El Baradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the Iraqis "are being positive, businesslike, and they're coming with a desire to reach an agreement." The IAEA is tasked with monitoring the dismantlement of Iraq's suspected nuclear-arms program.

The UN officials particularly welcomed a promise by Baghdad to provide four years of overdue reports on Iraqi dual-use facilities, which contain technology that could be used for not only civilian but also military purposes. Those reports would cover activities since December 1998, when UN arms monitors left Iraq ahead of U.S. and British air strikes to punish Baghdad for failing to cooperate on arms inspections.

News reports say that the talks. which are due to end tomorrow, have not addressed operating procedures for the eight sites that Baghdad designates as "presidential palaces." The palace compounds are thought to be sites for many of Iraq's suspected weapons programs and Iraq's refusal to open them fully to inspectors was largely the reason for the collapse of the weapons-inspection effort in 1998.

But if the Vienna talks seem to be smoothing the way for inspectors to return soon, they are taking place against a backdrop of other political events that could do far more to determine the future of the arms inspections than any agreements reached in the Austrian capital.

Instead, the future of the arms-inspections regime is likely to be defined by a diplomatic struggle that could begin this week as the United States and Britain are expected to introduce a draft resolution on Iraq to the UN Security Council. The joint proposal -- whose details have not been revealed publicly -- is widely reported to call for giving inspectors access to all sites, including presidential compounds, which is something Baghdad may refuse. The proposal is also expected to call for allowing any UN member to use "all necessary means" -- diplomatic language for the use of force -- to enforce the provisions of the resolution.

The draft resolution is likely to undergo lively discussion in the Security Council, where the three other permanent members -- China, France and Russia -- have said they want to see arms inspectors return without threats to use force against Baghdad. A resolution reserving the right to use force could cause Iraq to reverse its agreement to readmit arms inspectors because it would give the U.S. and Britain a green light for immediate military action, should there be renewed confrontations between the inspectors and Baghdad.

French officials have said they prefer a two-stage approach to any new Security Council resolutions. They have spoken of a first resolution spelling out inspection requirements, leaving military enforcement to be considered later.

Russia, signaling its own unhappiness with threats of force, this week criticized the United States for bombing Iraqi defense communications facilities as part of U.S.- British operations over Iraq's no-fly zones. The U.S. strikes have been reported by some Western media to be part of a strategy to weaken Iraqi air defenses in anticipation of a possible military campaign.

Also likely to be decided at the upcoming UN Security Council discussions will be the question of how long the arms inspectors should work in Iraq before any decisions are made regarding whether Iraq is complying with its disarmament requirements or not.

Under existing UN resolutions, Blix is to have 60 days to identify the key remaining disarmament tasks to be completed by Iraq. In contrast, the U.S.-British resolution is reported to call for a 30-day deadline for Iraq to declare all its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs to inspectors.

Jean Pascal Zanders, an arms-control expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, said that resolving such timetable issues will be one of the most important questions in defining how the arms inspectors will work and what will constitute success in their efforts to disarm Iraq. "Right now we are in the situation where most of [Iraq's weapons sites] were destroyed in the Gulf War or subsequently by the UNSCOM inspectors [the previous UN arms-inspection organization for Iraq], and today, after four years of no inspections, Iraq might well have moved things to different places. So, if the inspectors start their new mandate, they will have to reconstruct everything and build up the puzzle piece by piece. And I think this initial phase can take months, if not a year, to complete," Zanders said.

"And if UNMOVIC is not given that kind of time frame to start off and [is] hard-pressed to produce quick results, then one could see, on the one hand, the United States saying: 'Look, the inspections do not reveal anything; they are useless. We have to go in militarily.' Or, the countries which kind of support Iraq [might] say: 'UNMOVIC isn't finding anything. That proves that Iraq is completely clean, so lift the sanctions,'" Zanders said.

In the run-up to the discussions of the U.S.-British draft proposal, top U.S. officials this week repeated their insistence that the UN take a tough stance on Iraqi arms inspections.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington yesterday that the arms inspectors, who have said they hope to start work in some three weeks' time, are not going anywhere until the Security Council passes a new resolution.

He told reporters, "I think even Dr. Blix has made it clear that [the 30 September] meeting [in Vienna] was a procedural one."

Powell added that Blix "is fully aware of the possibility, and I think [it is highly likely] that there will be a new resolution coming forward that will structure his work and his actions."