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Iraq: Low Expectations That UN Talks Will End Inspections Impasse

Iraq's foreign minister holds rare high-level talks at UN headquarters starting 26 February. But prospects for a breakthrough on the weapons-inspection dispute were low even before U.S. and British planes struck targets near Baghdad a week ago. The attack has provoked a sharp reaction from the Iraqi regime. UN correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the issues surrounding the Iraqi visit.

United Nations, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Amid fresh hostilities, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf is to visit UN headquarters next week for what Baghdad is calling a "comprehensive dialogue" with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Iraq requested the visit months ago and confirmed it was still coming despite its outrage at recent air strikes by U.S. and British warplanes. Iraq in the past year has seen its political isolation ending and some symbolic weakening of sanctions, but it is not close to having them totally lifted as it has repeatedly requested.

The reason is the unresolved issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which must be eliminated before economic sanctions can be suspended. Iraq says it no longer has such weapons but will not allow UN weapons inspectors to verify this.

Sahaf is expected to offer new proof that Iraq no longer possesses ballistic missiles or nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Sahaf also said in a letter to Annan after the air strikes that during his visit he will inform the secretary-general of the "unjust, tyrannical and arbitrary treatment to which Iraq has been subjected since 1990."

Given such signals, expectations are low that the talks, beginning 26 February, will end the impasse over inspections. One Security Council diplomat told RFE/RL yesterday the Iraqi offer of proof did not sound serious and that no "milestones" would be reached in the talks.

Annan told reporters earlier in the week that he expected the talks to merely start a new dialogue.

"You have to have some hope, otherwise I wouldn't be getting into this exercise. It may take some time. I don't think we're going to have a miraculous breakthrough, but at least it's a beginning. It's a beginning."

Last week's U.S. and British missile strikes on Iraqi defenses near Baghdad revived divisions among the five permanent Security Council members over how to deal with Iraq. France, Russia, and China support softer sanctions and object to the U.S. and British patrols over two no-fly zones, which regularly lead to strikes on Iraqi defenses.

After the latest major strike, U.S. officials expressed concern about China's role in providing Iraq with fiber-optic cables and telecommunications aid. The officials say the equipment is used to help Iraq's air defenses, in violation of the UN sanctions against Iraq. China denies the allegations.

But despite the disputes, the Council has been unified in demanding that Iraq allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country to finish their work. The Council -- with France, Russia, and China abstaining -- in December 1999 formed a new weapons control group, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Mission, in a compromise aimed at making it possible for an early suspension of sanctions.

The mission, known as UNMOVIC, has also recruited from a broader base of UN members and its staffers have even undergone sensitivity training -- gestures the UN hopes will end ill feelings Iraqi officials had toward the predecessor inspection group.

UNMOVIC spokesman Ewan Buchanan told RFE/RL in an interview that Security Council members have so far been supportive of the year-old agency and the resolution -- number 1284 -- that created it.

The Council, Buchanan said, has made it clear there are unresolved issues related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that require scrutiny.

"I don't think anybody is walking away from the resolution as such. There may be differences of opinion as to how some parts of it might be interpreted, but I think all the Security Council members, in particular the permanent five, are committed to seeing the job being done and I don't think anybody is talking about somehow scrapping resolution 1284. They do believe there is a worthwhile job to be done and UNMOVIC is the organization to do it."

Analysts say Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein clearly gains confidence when Council members express disagreements. And he has received growing support in the Arab world for coming to the aid of Palestinians engaged in a new round of fighting with Israelis.

Baghdad has begun linking the U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq with Israel's crackdown on Palestinians, saying they represent aggression against Arabs throughout the world.

But leaders of Arab states are still wary about Saddam Hussein, says Richard Murphy, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.

Murphy tells RFE/RL that gestures such as opening air traffic with Iraq do not mean Arab leaders want to see an end to weapons inspections.

"None of them want to see weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the Baghdad regime. They do not consider that the regime is to be trusted, and that same comment, I think, applies to the leaders in Beijing, in Moscow, in Paris today."

The last on-site inspections in Iraq took place in 1998, meaning UN experts have few direct means of monitoring the Iraqi military.

UNMOVIC spokesman Buchanan says the mission, largely confined to New York, receives occasional information about Iraqi military developments from UN member states.

But he says such information, which includes satellite photographs, is not a substitute for being on site.

"You can see perhaps that a roof has been rebuilt on a factory, but it doesn't tell you what's going on under the roof. And so, therefore, our ability to monitor Iraq is fairly limited at the moment."

It is not clear whether another long-stalled issue would be on the agenda for the UN-Iraqi talks -- the fate of hundreds of Kuwaitis missing since the Gulf War and the return of Kuwaiti property seized in the war. Iraq has refused to meet the UN envoy assigned to handle the issue, Russian diplomat Yuli Vorontsov.

The Iraqi foreign minister's visit Monday occurs on the 10th anniversary of Kuwait's liberation from Iraqi annexation by a U.S.-led coalition of forces.