Prague 23 December 1998 -- After erupting this month into U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq, the crisis between Baghdad and UN arms inspectors ended the year as it began, with tensions high and no final resolution in sight.
London and Washington struck Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction facilities and his military infrastructure for four consecutive nights in an action they said significantly reduced his ability to threaten his neighbors.
After the strikes, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the strikes were necessary because Saddam had repeatedly refused to submit to UN arms inspections.
"We have reduced the danger Saddam represents consistent with common sense and a proportionate use of force. Had we simply allowed the [arms] inspection regime to be reduced to impotence, and simply done nothing, then he would have known that we were not serious. He would have felt unrestrained and able to work his will on the outside world again," he said
Both Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton said they are ready to strike again if Saddam seeks to resume weapons development programs. They also said they want arms inspectors to return to work and UN sanctions to stay in place until Baghdad is certified free of weapons including biological and chemical arms.
Iraq has been under UN sanctions since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, with their lifting tied to the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq confirming it has no more weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles.
But this month's bombing deepened already-existing divisions among Security Council members over how long the inspections and sanctions regimes should last.
France said this month that by now enough Iraqi weapons have been destroyed that arms monitors should switch their focus to preventing Baghdad from acquiring new ones and sanctions should be eased. Russia and China, which both strongly opposed the air strikes, also favor easing or lifting the sanctions soon.
Meanwhile, Iraq has refused to let the UNSCOM inspectors -- who left just prior to the strikes -- return to the country.
The air strikes capped a series of dramatic turns in the Iraqi crisis which twice came to the brink of military action earlier in the year.
Tensions first came to a head in mid-January, when Saddam accused U.S. experts with UNSCOM of spying and banned them from working. He then barred all inspectors from entering sites he dubbed presidential palaces.
William Quant, an expert on the Middle East at the Brookings Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL recently that Saddam was emboldened to challenge the UN over arms inspections at the start of the year because he believed the international consensus on policing Iraq was weakening.
"I think there were several reasons for him to conclude in the early part of this year that perhaps the consensus was weaker," he said. "There was more open discussion of the negative effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people, there was an outspoken concern about the rather aggressive and highly public statements of some members of the UNSCOM mission, and I think it is quite typical of Saddam Hussein to probe and see how deep some of these differences may be. So yes, the perception of some disagreement within the Security Council and within the anti-Iraq coalition did tempt him to make a move at the early part of the year."
The differences within the Security Council over Iraq became public as Russia, China and France -- joined by most Arab states -- repeatedly called for solving the January crisis diplomatically. That left the United States and Britain alone in threatening punitive strikes to force Saddam to renew cooperation.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan defused the crisis by signing an accord with Iraqi officials in Baghdad in February. The accord allowed senior diplomats from a number of countries to accompany arms inspectors to sensitive sites and mediate over Iraqi concerns. He also promised the UN would soon review Iraq's compliance in disarming, giving Iraq "a light at the end of the tunnel" that sanctions one day would be lifted.
But Annan's diplomatic solution frayed during the summer. UN arms inspectors argued Iraq was still far from proving its disarmament and by August an angry Iraq again halted most cooperation. Baghdad said it now wanted a UN pledge that the promised compliance review would lead directly to ending the sanctions. A showdown was assured when Saddam applied still more pressure in October by cutting off all cooperation on arms monitoring.
This time the international community's patience ran out. As Washington and London again readied air strikes in November, the Arab Gulf states, plus Egypt and Syria, declared Baghdad alone was to blame for any force used against it. U.S. planes were reportedly already in the air and ready to strike when Saddam reversed himself and promised that Iraq would again cooperate with inspectors.
But just four weeks later, the crisis returned as UNSCOM reported to the Security Council that despite the promise, Baghdad was still obstructing arms inspections. Washington and London reacted by immediately carrying out their threat to strike and bombed some 100 targets in Iraq for a total of 70 hours.
As the smoke cleared, both the allies who struck Saddam and Saddam himself declared victory. But the question of how the international community will deal with Iraq in the future remained as open as ever.