A UN official says the "bottom-line" issue for any talks with Iraqi officials is the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. Spokesman Fred Eckhard says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants to move beyond the mainly inconclusive talks held one year ago. Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the talks as a possible step toward ending the impasse on inspections. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Iraq against setting any conditions for a return of monitors.
United Nations, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Secretary-General's office has signaled that a planned new round of talks with senior Iraqi officials must be focused on the issue of returning United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters yesterday that the "bottom-line" issue for the talks is permitting inspectors back into Iraq to resume a process that could lead to the lifting of 11 years of sanctions.
Eckhard said Secretary-General Annan is hoping to move beyond the level of last year's inconclusive talks with then Foreign Minister Mohammad Said Al-Sahaf.
"The secretary-general's preference is, of course, that these talks be somewhat more focused than the first round a year ago when Iraq went into considerable detail to lay out their case and substantial documentation was presented and was passed on to the Security Council after that," Eckhard said. "Now that that is behind us, I think the secretary-general hopes we can go to the next step, which is to talk about more specific issues, such as the return of inspectors to Iraq."
Annan's office said 4 February that it has agreed to Iraq's request to hold talks "without preconditions." The request was conveyed from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein through the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa. No immediate date was set.
The Iraqi offer comes amid a diplomatic campaign that many analysts see as an attempt by Baghdad to build support against mounting U.S. threats. Later in February, Iraq will allow a visit by a United Nations human rights rapporteur for the first time in 10 years. It has also made overtures to its neighbors in the Persian Gulf to try to improve relations.
But U.S. officials, in increasingly threatening tones, say Iraq is a sponsor of terrorism and possesses the capability of spreading weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a U.S. Senate panel yesterday that any Iraqi-UN dialogue should be "very short." He said Iraq must agree to permit weapons inspectors back into the country as mandated by Security Council resolutions.
"The burden is upon this evil regime to demonstrate to the world that they are not doing the kinds of things we suspect them of. And if they aren't doing these things, then it is beyond me why they do not want the inspectors in to do whatever is necessary to establish that such activities are not taking place."
Powell is known to be more in favor of using UN sanctions to pressure Iraq than military force, which is favored by many U.S. Defense Department officials.
The UN Security Council has committed to changing the sanctions against Iraq by placing a greater emphasis on goods with possible military applications. That change is due to take effect by June if the United States and Russia can agree on a revised list of goods that would be subject to review under the oil-for-food humanitarian program.
Russia is the lone Security Council member that has not yet agreed to the goods-review list. U.S. and Russian officials yesterday began three days of meetings in Geneva to continue negotiations over the list. If approved, the list would permit a far higher number of goods into Iraq and is expected to greatly relieve the humanitarian impact of sanctions.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said yesterday it welcomes the news of a renewed dialogue between Annan and Iraq. The ministry said these talks could help lead to a breakthrough in the impasse. Baghdad has not allowed UN inspectors into the country since 1998 and says it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Russia, China, and France have sought to loosen the UN sanctions in the past three years but have also affirmed that they cannot be lifted until inspectors are allowed back into Iraq. Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz heard this again during recent talks in Moscow and Beijing.
Moussa, the Arab League secretary-general, met with Powell on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum before meeting Annan on 4 February. He told reporters in Washington yesterday that all issues should be open for discussion in the UN talks. He declined to say whether he believes a breakthrough can be reached.
Moussa also warned of expanding the war on terrorism to include Iraq. He said the United States will face the "unanimous" opposition of Arab states if it launches military strikes against Iraq.
Meanwhile, the new UN monitoring mission for Iraq -- known as UNMOVIC -- continues to prepare for the day it is permitted into the country. UNMOVIC spokesman Ewan Buchanan told RFE/RL that the mission's staff has been analyzing satellite imagery to try to determine whether former Iraqi weapons sites have become active again.
Buchanan says analysts are also poring over the work of UNMOVIC's predecessor organization -- known as UNSCOM -- to be ready, in particular, to assess potential chemical and biological weapons sites.
Buchanan said UNSCOM repeatedly proved the value of on-site inspections. One of its most important findings, he said, was a biological weapons program Iraq had denied existed.
"Iraq denied right up until 1995 that it had an offensive biological weapons program. It was only because of our inspections, because of our analysis, our working through documents, interviewing people, that we were able to finally confront Iraq and force them to confess that they had a bio program. And I think that was one of the greatest achievements of the inspections, and I think people have often lost sight of that."
Buchanan said inspectors on the ground can provide both detection and deterrence but will require "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to inspection sites. That access is provided for in Security Council resolutions.