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Iraq: UN Prepares To Debate Future Of Arms Inspections

Prague, 13 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Security Council is preparing for what are likely to be lengthy and divisive talks over the future of Iraqi arms inspections, on hold since U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq last month.

The Security Council is expected to meet this week over the future of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq, resuming discussions which stalemated last month. The council has no timetable for the talks and many analysts predict they could last weeks or even months.

France, which favors loosening the UN arms inspections regime and the sanctions enforcing it, opened the discussions by briefing the other four permanent Security Council members yesterday on its proposals.

So far, the French plan has not been spelled out in detail. But French officials have said repeatedly that they believe enough Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed since the Gulf War that UN monitoring efforts should now switch from searching for old weapons to preventing Iraq from acquiring new ones. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine also has said Paris would consider lifting sanctions as an incentive to Baghdad to cooperate with a new monitoring regime.

The French approach received support yesterday from Russia at a meeting in Moscow between Vedrine and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. At a press conference, they said they both want an overhaul of UN arms inspections in Iraq.

Ivanov also repeated Russia's insistence that a new monitoring system should be accompanied by measures to end the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But the French and Russian initiatives are certain to run into strong opposition from Washington and London, which launched last month's strikes to punish Iraq for not cooperating with arms inspectors. Lifting of the sanctions is tied to UNSCOM certifying Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction, something the arms inspectors have said they have never received enough Iraqi cooperation to do.

Colonel Terrence Taylor of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies was with UNSCOM from 1992 to 1995. He told RFE/RL today that the U.S.-British position is far apart from that of France and Russia.

"I think the United States and Britain, having used military force based on the idea that Iraq was preventing an inspection process from being realistic and practical and going forward, will find it very hard to move to any kind of inspections system which is in any way less rigorous than what the UN Special Commission has been doing. You can change the name from UNSCOM to something else... but as long as the rigor of the process is maintained, I think that is what counts for London and Washington."

The U.S. and Britain remain in a military frame of mind toward Baghdad, with near daily confrontations, the latest today, taking place in the U.S. and British-enforced no-fly zones over Iraq. But Russia, which strongly opposed the U.S.-British strikes last month, and France, which has since called them a mistake, have long favored a softer approach toward Baghdad.

Taylor says that Moscow and Paris want to ease sanctions for humanitarian reasons but also have economic and political motives for doing so.

"(Moscow) has had a longstanding relationship with the Iraqi regime, having provided much of their military equipment (in sales still unpaid), so in the case of Russia and their very difficult economic situation that position is understandable. In France it is much more mixed. I think there are economic interests in relation to oil and other military equipment in the past, too, so they are owed quite a lot of money. But in the case of France there (also) is a very strong political factor in relation to two things: French influence in the Middle East and with other Arab countries, wanting to take a more reasonable line and also wanting to take a different European line from that of the United States."

The fifth member of the Security Council, China, is sympathetic to easing restrictions on Baghdad. But until now Beijing has not taken a lead in proposing changes for UNSCOM.

Any softening of current Security Council policies toward Iraq could be blocked by an American or British veto. But analysts say neither country wants to be isolated. The United States and Britain also fear that if they keep the embargo on Iraq in force by their vetoes, other nations might decide to ignore the sanctions over time.

But Taylor predicts that London and Washington would run the risk of sanctions busting to keep its Security Council partners from diluting the arms inspection regime, and would count on its closest allies to maintain an effective embargo.

"The tough judgment for London and Washington is (to assure that) whatever system will be in place (guarantees that banned) programs won't be restarted in some way or another and that weapons and equipment won't be re-acquired .... and not just the prohibited weapons but (any) reinforcement of the (Iraqi) military machine. If the international community allows that to happen it would seem to people in London and Washington extraordinary after all the effort they have put into it."

Taylor added that a sanctions regime can't be enforced by London and Washington alone. But he noted that there does seem to be support from others. He notes that Japan and Germany were among the countries supporting last month's U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq.