Prague, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the United Nations mission to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, Richard Butler, has denied allegations that his team has helped the United States gather intelligence information against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. also has denied any misuse of the UN weapons inspectors' mission (UNSCOM) in Iraq. The comments follow detailed allegations appearing in two major U.S. newspapers, The Washington Post and Boston Globe. Addressing those reports in New York last night, Butler said:
"Have we facilitated spying? Are we spies? Absolutely not!"
With more than 40 countries assisting Butler's mission to track down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and their means of production, the question of how information is collected and used, and by whom and when, is a complicated one. But Butler says there was no deviation from the mandate handed down by the UN Security Council.
"In every case of assistance given to us, including technical assistance given to us by the United States of America, we have only ever accepted and used that assistance in the pursuit of our disarmament mandate."
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin made similar comments yesterday:
"Intelligence cooperation with UNSCOM by the United States and other countries was intended to assist the UN and member states in assessing Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions and the status of the programs that were the targets of UNSCOM's works."
What is at issue is not the fact that the U.S. helped the UN effort to gather information within Iraq, but that it is alleged to have used for its own intelligence purposes information on the Iraqi regime, in particular on the movements of President Saddam Hussein.
The original Boston Globe report quotes unnamed U.S. and UN sources as saying, among other things, that U.S. intelligence agencies have been able to listen to secret communications among elite Iraqi military units responsible for Saddam's personal security.
Despite clear denials of any impropriety from Butler and the U.S., the allegations will further complicate Butler's position as head of the UNSCOM group. They will also add to pressure for rethinking the way UNSCOM operates. The inspectors worked in Iraq for eight years, but since last month's U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq, Baghdad has renounced all cooperation with Butler and his arms inspectors. Saddam has long accused some of the arms inspectors of being spies.
Since the raids, Security Council members Russia and China have called for Butler's replacement. Russian UN envoy Sergei Lavrov yesterday said Butler cannot be trusted and must be replaced. Security Council member France is also dissatisfied with the Australian diplomat, and is seeking a new inspection system which would not rely on officials loaned by governments.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that, according to some advisers of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Annan also wants Butler to step down. Annan is said to want a successor who can win the consent of Iraq and the Security Council for the return of the arms inspectors.
In a statement last night, Annan formally denied assertions that he wants Butler to resign. He noted Butler's categorical denial of UNSCOM help for U.S. intelligence efforts in Iraq. Annan said there is no evidence of any kind for the allegations against UNSCOM, only rumors.
At the same time, Annan sidestepped responsibility for events concerning UNSCOM. His statement said that he has no operational oversight of UNSCOM -- that belongs to the Security Council -- and therefore he has little detailed information on its daily activities. And he added that if the present charges against the panel were true, it would be damaging to the UN's work in Iraq and elsewhere.