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UN: Security Council Awaits Pivotal Blix Briefing, Still Debating Inspections

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations Security Council is set to hear another in a series of crucial briefings by chief UN inspector Hans Blix tomorrow. Nearly half the council members will be represented at the level of foreign minister to discuss what is expected to be a critical assessment by Blix of Iraqi cooperation. France has gained support from a number of key council members for its proposal to intensify inspections, but U.S. officials have dismissed the plan as ineffective.

United Nations, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Top United Nations weapons inspectors are to deliver a pivotal report on Iraqi compliance tomorrow to a Security Council divided over threatening war or intensifying inspections.

It has been scheduled as a progress report by Hans Blix, the UN official in charge of inspecting Iraq's biological, chemical, and missile programs, and the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad el-Baradei. But it has taken on critical importance as Washington presses for a final decision about Iraq's cooperation with a three-month-old council resolution.

Blix delivered a tough assessment of Iraq's level of compliance in his last report on 27 January. Since then, the chief UN inspector has welcomed recent Iraqi moves to help monitors, such as allowing U-2 surveillance flights and encouraging private interviews with scientists.

But Blix said this week that Iraq still must provide clear evidence that it has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will attend the briefing, 10 days after presenting the council with new details of alleged Iraqi weapons violations.

The foreign ministers of France, Russia, Germany, and China, all of whom support continued inspections, will also attend the briefing. Numerous bilateral talks are planned.

Powell told a U.S. congressional panel yesterday that he holds out hope the council will come together to support military action to disarm Iraq. "I hope that in the days ahead we will be able to rally the United Nations around the original resolution and what other resolution might be necessary in order to satisfy the political needs of a number of the countries," Powell said.

The U.S. case could be bolstered by findings of an international expert group this week that confirm that Iraq tested missiles that can travel beyond the permitted 150-kilometer range. Blix had called together the expert group to help determine whether Iraq's Al-Samud II and Al-Fatah missiles violated the allowed range.

Iraq disclosed the missile tests in its 12,000-page weapons declaration in December. It told UN monitors the final range for both systems would be less than 150 kilometers. Blix told the council last month that he has asked Iraq to cease test flights of both missiles. He is expected to address the issue in tomorrow's briefing.

Some council diplomats say the findings by monitors show that inspections are working and should be given more time.

France this week presented council members with a proposal to toughen the inspection regime. French officials say that measures such as tripling the number of inspectors and tightening surveillance of Iraq can help disarm Iraq without resorting to war.

U.S. officials have dismissed the proposal as ineffective. Blix himself told reporters this week that Iraqi cooperation was more important than increasing the number of inspectors.

Spain is one of the few countries on the council to openly support the hard-line U.S. approach. Its UN ambassador, Inocencio Arias, told reporters yesterday that the number of inspectors will not make a difference without the compliance of the Iraqi government. "We can put only two dozen inspectors, one dozen, [or] 10 inspectors [in Iraq], and with the Iraq regime wishing to cooperate honestly, as we told it in [UN Security Council Resolution] 1441, everything would be solved," Arias said.

Arias said he was not optimistic that Baghdad would show the cooperation required by Resolution 1441.

But China's UN ambassador, Wang Yingfan, said the French proposal contained some good ideas about making inspections more effective. But Wang acknowledged that the council needed to overcome its differences to resolve the crisis. "The responsibility of us working in the UN is: How shall we try to solve the problem by finding out a way to achieve consensus? That's still our objective, because we know if we want the Security Council, the UN, [to be] more powerful, more [authoritative], we need unity of this world body," Wang said.

The council's authority faces another major challenge in the growing crisis over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. El-Baradei will deliver his report on Iraq just days after his agency's governing board referred the crisis in North Korea to the council. It was not immediately clear whether the council would consider sanctions against North Korea to pressure it to allow IAEA inspectors back in the country. Permanent members China and Russia oppose such a measure.

Reporters in Vienna asked el-Baradei to compare the gravity of the North Korean situation with the crisis over Iraq. He described both as serious challenges to the global nonproliferation regime. "Both of them are of equal international concern, and both of them need to be addressed adroitly and decisively," el-Baradei said.

In his last report to the council on Iraq, el-Baradei said his inspectors had uncovered no forbidden nuclear programs in the country. He said his monitors could conclude their work in Iraq in a matter of months, but he said Baghdad needed to provide more proactive cooperation.

Meanwhile, a team of UN chemical experts yesterday began the process of destroying 10 artillery shells and four plastic containers filled with mustard gas at a site 140 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. The shells were scheduled to be destroyed by the previous UN inspection mission, but the plan was stopped when those inspectors withdrew from Iraq in 1998.