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Iraq: UN To Vote Soon On Arms Inspection

U.S. officials say that a vote is imminent in the UN Security Council over a proposal for a new arms inspection regime for Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the outlook for the vote.

Prague, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials have repeatedly signaled over the last days that they expect the UN Security Council to vote this week on a U.S.-British-backed proposal to link a suspension of sanctions against Iraq to the resumption of arms inspections.

The five permanent Security Council members -- the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China -- have been holding intensive discussions for several weeks on a draft resolution that would offer Baghdad a suspension -- but not a lifting -- of sanctions on two conditions. One is full Iraqi cooperation with arms inspectors. The other is progress on what the draft calls key tasks remaining in the disarmament effort.

So far, any vote on the U.S.- and British-backed draft has been held up by arguments over when a suspension of sanctions would go into effect. Equally contentious has been the question of what powers a new UN disarmament panel would have to define the key tasks Baghdad must first fulfill.

But in recent weeks France has moved close to lending its support to the U.S.. and British position, leaving the remaining resistance largely with Russia.

Terrence Taylor, an arms control expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL that the major disagreement now focuses on whether the suspension would have to be regularly reconfirmed by a Security Council vote, giving the U.S. and Britain a chance to veto the deal if Iraqi cooperation were to slacken.

"The essential difference between the Russians and the other Western powers now is simply about the method by which, if sanctions are eased -- or to be more accurate, suspended -- they will be automatically reimposed according to the Western camp unless there is a vote on the Security Council to the contrary. The Russians would [like to] turn it around the other way, [so that] there would have to be a positive vote not to suspend them."

Moscow is reported to also want to shorten an initial delay before suspensions are suspended. The West has proposed no suspension until 315 days -- almost a year -- after a vote on the resolution. At the same time, Moscow wants to limit the mandate and powers of the new disarmament panel.

Meanwhile, China is said to be playing little active role in the discussions, and many analysts expect it to follow Russia's lead in any final vote.

Taylor says that in the run-up to a vote, both the United States and Britain are working extremely hard to assure that any vote will result in an overwhelming endorsement of the draft resolution by the full Security Council. He says that could include abstentions by Russia and China. But any prospect of strong resistance to the resolution by many Security Council members would likely lead the Western powers not to risk a vote at all. Taylor says:

"I think there might be a Chinese abstention and a Russian abstention, but what [the Western powers] are trying to get if they can -- and they are still going to work hard for it -- is to finally have a unanimous vote. ... I think if it doesn't look like they are going to get a good vote, I suspect they might not even take it in the end. The last thing the U.S. and UK and even France wants is some mess on the floor in the Security Council, so if they go forward with the voting, I think it will mean that they pretty well more or less have got it in the bag."

Iraq launched a diplomatic offensive last week to try to influence Paris and Moscow to resist the U.S.-British draft. At the same time, Baghdad has reiterated that -- no matter what the UN decides -- it will refuse to cooperate with any UN decision short of an unconditional lifting of all sanctions.

The state-controlled Iraqi press strongly criticized France over the weekend as signs increased that Paris will back the draft resolution. The daily "Babel" said a yes-vote by Paris would be, to quote, "the last straw for Iraqi-French relations." The paper said such a vote would logically require the major French oil companies -- Gulf and Total -- to close their offices in Baghdad and lose immense concessions on Iraqi oil fields which have not yet been exploited. Paris counts on oil sales from those concessions to one day recoup the large debts Iraq still owes it for past arms purchases.

Since arms monitoring broke down last year, France -- like Russia -- originally argued for a substantial easing of sanctions to induce Iraq to allow inspectors to return to work. France also said that arms controls on Iraq should now concentrate less on ensuring that any remaining Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are destroyed, and focus instead on ensuring that Iraq cannot build any new ones. Key to this, the French position said, would be creating a financial monitoring system to prevent Iraq from buying weapons materials with the greater oil revenues it would earn under eased sanctions.

But over this year, France has moved closer to a position that combines U.S. and British demands for Iraqi cooperation in finishing outstanding disarmament tasks with monitoring Baghdad's future revenues. Analysts say that makes it unlikely Paris will now undo its own work to reach a compromise with the U.S. and Britain, no matter what Iraq threatens to do. Instead, France is likely to ride out the storm from Iraq, counting on a reversal of positions in Baghdad later.

Baghdad has also pressed hard on Russia to resist the draft proposal. Last week, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz went to Moscow to meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russia's UN ambassador, Sergey Lavrov. Like France, Russia is owed large sums by Baghdad for arms purchases.

Taylor says he believes Moscow has tried to convince Iraq that Russia can not do more to get Baghdad a better deal on sanctions than the Western proposals now under discussion.

"It is harder for the Russians to stay out on their own in these circumstances, and in the end the Russians have become the interlocutor [between the UN and Iraq], as they did indeed before. I am sure Tareq Aziz got quite a strong message from the Russians when he went to Moscow, saying, look, this probably looks like the best we can get for you, so you better accept it and bite the bullet. I suspect some kind of exchange like that went on."

Few details of the discussions in Moscow have emerged, and it still remains a question whether Iraq's last-minute bid to influence Russia to use its veto had any success. The full Security Council is scheduled to meet today.