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UN: Waiting For Powell, Council Members Reassert Opposing Views On Iraq

  • Robert McMahon

One week ahead of a key report from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Security Council members continued to show divisions about a military option against Iraq. Wide support remains for using the new UN inspection regime to resolve Iraqi disarmament issues. But British and U.S. officials say the time for diplomacy is drawing to a close, and both countries are considering a proposal to present a final deadline for Iraqi compliance.

United Nations, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The key states that could be voting on Iraq's fate in the weeks ahead remain divided over the need for military force as U.S. officials prepared for what they say will be a final phase of diplomacy.

Ambassadors from the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council met with the two top UN inspectors yesterday to continue to discuss Iraqi weapons programs. Outside the council, ambassadors told reporters they were eager to hear the report on illegal Iraqi weapons that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is to deliver on 5 February.

But many signaled that, without strong evidence that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, they would not support U.S. efforts to accelerate moves toward military action.

Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov said his country would need to see "undeniable proof" of banned Iraqi weapons. Lavrov stressed that Moscow has not changed its position on Iraq despite an apparent shift in views expressed by President Vladimir Putin on 28 January. "We have not seen any reason, so far, to undercut the inspection process. The inspections are useful. They are efficient and effective, and they should certainly continue," Lavrov said.

French ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, who presides over the council this month, said France would welcome any information that Powell could divulge that would help the inspectors. But he repeated France's position that it is too early to consider use of force to ensure Iraqi disarmament. "We have stated many times that we do not exclude that use of force. But we do think the use of force should be the last resort, when all other options are exhausted. And we consider that we should give now more time to the inspectors to do the job," de La Sabliere said.

Germany's UN ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, who assumes the presidency of the council next month, repeated his country's view that the invigorated inspection process should be given more time. The focus should be on helping the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN mission verifying Iraqi chemical, biological, and ballistic missile systems, Pleuger said. "We do not want to waste this prospect of disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction peacefully. Let us not put aside an instrument we only recently sharpened and let us continue to assist UNMOVIC and [the] IAEA in coping with the task ahead of them," Pleuger said.

Despite the caution voiced by key council members, the United States and Britain are moving ahead with plans to increase pressure on Iraq. One option said to be under discussion is whether to set a final deadline for Iraq to comply with UN disarmament resolutions. This would involve drafting a second resolution in the UN Security Council. The United States has said a new resolution is not necessary to authorize force against Iraq due to Iraqi violations of existing resolutions and the "serious consequences" threatened in the resolution passed last November. But it is understood that Washington would consider a second resolution if it helped other council members justify their support for using force.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told reporters that Powell's presentation next week would make the case that Iraq maintains and will continue to pursue its weapons programs unless action is taken. "The diplomatic window is closing. We feel that the time for decision making is fast approaching. We don't have a specific timetable in mind, but the situation is urgent. It is pressing. The window is closing in on us," Negroponte said.

British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said the critical briefing by chief UN inspector Hans Blix had "changed the character of the debate" on Iraq. He acknowledged the different views expressed by some council members but said some delegations may have forgotten what they agreed to when they voted unanimously to approve Resolution 1441.

Two temporary council members seen as supportive of the U.S.-British position, Bulgaria and Spain, yesterday criticized Iraq's level of compliance with inspectors. Bulgarian Ambassador Stefan Tafrov said Iraq needs urgently to change its attitude on inspections.

Spain's ambassador, Inocencio Arias, said two months of inspections have shown Iraq is in clear violation of its obligations to cooperate actively with the United Nations. Especially serious, he said, was Iraq's failure to account for thousands of chemical shells. "We are very skeptical about the goodwill of the Iraqi authorities, and I pray to God that they start to have the position to behave and to act according to the United Nations [resolutions]," Arias said.

But Iraq's UN ambassador, Muhammad al-Duri, told reporters that Iraq was fulfilling all its disarmament obligations. He dismissed the charges made by U.S. President George W. Bush of Iraqi deception and illicit weapons programs. But he also promised extra cooperation: "We will go a step further and proactively cooperate with the inspectors to prove that these baseless allegations [that Iraq has banned weapons programs] are nothing but fabrications."

The director-general of the IAEA, Mohammad el-Baradei, yesterday reiterated that the "nuclear file" on Iraq was nearly closed and that he would continue to press for more time to complete inspections. But, in remarks to reporters, he also cited the many unresolved issues related to other weapons programs. "We are able to make progress [on the nuclear issue]. However, unless chemical [weapons] and biological [weapons] and missiles -- Hans Blix's file -- is also making equal progress, the Iraqi issue will not move forward," el-Baradei said.

Prior to Powell's 5 February briefing, the most important consultations come tomorrow between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair heads to Madrid today for talks with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar before flying to Washington for his meeting with Bush.

The Bush-Blair meeting is expected to set the strategy for the final diplomatic phase at the United Nations.