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Iraq: Stalemate Continues

Washington, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The question many people are asking in Washington this week is what happens next in Iraq, what will the United States do about President Saddam Hussein's renewed defiance of the weapons inspections mandated by the United Nations.

The answer Wednesday was more of the same for the time being. That means, according to coordinated White House, State Department and UN public statements, another round of intense diplomacy, while American battleships remain vigilant in the Persian Gulf.

U.S. officials are hoping that, like last year, concerted international action will compel Saddam Hussein to stop barring selected American members of the inspection teams from doing their job and return him to full compliance with the UN mandate.

State Department spokesman James Foley pointed out that it worked for almost two months. Let's remember, he said, that Saddam first flouted the UN inspections in October, but after the international community united to oppose him in November, the teams in Baghdad were allowed to resume their work -- until this week when history seemed to be repeating itself.

The pattern of U.S. response to Saddam Hussein's defiance was also familiar. First the U.S. pressed the UN Security Council to show unanimity and resolve in condemning the Iraq government's decision to block a UN weapons team led by Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain.

The Security Council issued a statement Wednesday deploring Iraq's behavior, calling it unacceptable and demanding Iraq's immediate and full compliance, without exception.

U.S. President Bill Clinton was quick Wednesday night to welcome the move, saying "it is a good statement," and he feels "very encouraged."

Clinton said "it is clear that the international community knows President Saddam Hussein is doing the wrong thing," adding that "the leader of Iraq does not get to decide the who, when and what" regarding the UN inspections.

And Clinton urged steadfastness in continuing to insist on them, saying "we have to be absolutely resolute."

He noted that in 1995 Iraq admitted it had stocks of chemical and biological materials, calling it very troubling and one of the reasons why the UN must stiffen its resolve and continue the inspections.

U.S. officials stressed that the international community is united against Saddam Hussein. State Department spokesman James Foley said Security Council members, including Russia and France, unanimously supported the notion that Iraq must comply fully with the inspection regime without exceptions or qualifications.

On the scale of diplomatic nuances, UN statements express a view or policy and carry less weight than resolutions that often include action. But the statements must be approved by each of the 15 members.

Reports from the United Nations said Russia had wanted a reference to a need for more nationalities to be represented on the inspection teams. But other members rejected the suggestion.

Iraq has complained to Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov that Britons and Americans dominate the teams, and accuses the Americans of being spies.

Foley Wednesday again rejected the charges, saying the volunteers on the teams are chosen by the UN chief inspector, Richard Butler, on the basis of their expertise in arms control and weapons of mass destruction.

To make sure of a united front in the Security Council, the U.S. has continued to consult closely with the Russian government on the crisis. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has telephoned with Primakov and last night was in New York, dining at the residence of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with Russian and other members of the Council.

In addition, Foley said Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering Wednesday consulted with his Russian counterpart at the Foreign Ministry, Igor Ivanov, and that it was in his words "a very productive conversation."

Foley said they did not discuss a military option regarding Iraq. He said the U.S. intends to make every effort first to use diplomacy. "We would like to see this resolved diplomatically and peacefully," Foley said.

The next step, as before, is to send chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler to Baghdad. He is scheduled to leave at the weekend and meet with Iraqi officials on Monday, the first of three days of talks there. Butler will then return to New York and report to the Security Council.

Foley said the U.S. will wait to see the results of his mission "If he has not found compliance on the visit, then we are going to face decisions in New York in the first instance," Foley said.

That too was the procedure in last year's Iraqi crisis. But everything is not quite the same this year. The tone of official statements Wednesday went up one notch, introducing a faint warning note.

Foley said U.S. patience is not limitless. He said the highest priority is being given to diplomacy at the moment but warned that "other formidable options remain at our disposal."

In New York, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said hope is fading that Iraq would return to compliance. "My optimism is waning," he said, adding that "the world's optimism is waning too, and patience is wearing thin."