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U.S./Iraq: Failed UN Talks Fuel Renewed Debate Of U.S. Military Campaign

As United Nations and Iraqi diplomats have failed to agree on returning arms inspectors to Baghdad, media attention is again turning to the question of whether Washington will launch a military campaign to try to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL looks at the failure of the UN-Iraq negotiations in Vienna last week and how it has prompted renewed talk of war both in the U.S. and Iraq.

Prague, 8 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- None of the participants at the two days of talks between the United Nations and Baghdad last week has said that the talks will be the last substantive negotiations on the question of returning arms inspectors to Iraq.

But statements from both UN and Iraqi top officials following the meeting in Vienna leave little likelihood that a next round would be anything more than an exercise in repeating positions that are already too opposed to allow much progress.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said as the meeting ended on 5 July that the third round of talks between the two sides since March had focused upon disarmament issues and upon practical considerations, should the inspectors resume. But he said the Iraqis "haven't said yes, yet" to the question of returning arms inspectors to work, and future discussions will continue only at the technical level. "We discussed the disarmament issue and also the practical arrangements should the inspectors go back. We have given a lot of information to the Iraqis and, as I said, they have to report back [to Baghdad], and we are going to remain in contact and continue discussions on the technical level," Annan said.

Annan also said that he "would have preferred more" from the Iraqi side but that he "cannot force a decision." By reducing future sessions to discussing technical issues, he raised doubts about whether he himself would attend the meetings.

The top Iraqi negotiator, Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, made it clear that his side also saw no progress at the Vienna meeting. He told reporters that despite the three rounds of talks, both sides have yet to reach a common ground. "The purpose of the dialogue as we understand [it] is to reach a common ground, a common understanding how to build up a mechanism that meets the legitimate concerns of both parties. And this is the purpose of the dialogue we have to discuss. We have to exchange views, with the view of reaching such a common ground," Sabri said.

Sabri said that the UN still must answer a list of questions submitted to the world body at the last talks in New York, including a request for a timetable for the lifting of UN sanctions. That appeared to repeat Iraq's long-standing position that it will not allow arms inspectors to return until the sanctions regime is lifted, a demand the UN is not willing to grant.

UN resolutions call for the sanctions to be lifted only after arms inspectors confirm Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad has barred arms inspectors from returning to Iraq since they were withdrawn from the country ahead of U.S. and British air strikes 3 1/2 years ago to punish Baghdad for not cooperating on inspections.

The unpromising end to the Vienna talks has prompted some newspapers to report that there now is little possibility that the dispute over arms inspections will be resolved diplomatically. Instead, there appears to be a growing likelihood that Washington will opt for a military campaign to remove what it deems a growing threat from Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction programs in the absence of any international monitoring.

Britain's daily "The Times" wrote on 6 July that, "the likelihood of an attack by the United States against Iraq increased...after the United Nations negotiations with Iraq failed." The paper also called the doubts surrounding whether Annan will participate in further rounds of talks a "clear sign that diplomatic efforts are unlikely to break the four-year deadlock with Iraq."

The sense that Washington will opt for a military solution was also heightened last week by the U.S. daily "The New York Times," which published a classified government document outlining how a combined air, land, and sea force might attack Iraq to overthrow the Baghdad regime. The document, prepared by the U.S. military's Central Command in Tampa, Florida, is reported to be a plan prepared some two months ago.

"The New York Times" cited the document as saying some 250,000 U.S. troops would invade Iraq, probably from Kuwait. Hundreds of warplanes based in as many as eight countries, including Turkey and Qatar, would attack thousands of targets. However, officials told the paper privately that none of the countries identified in the document has been formally consulted about taking part in such operations, indicating the preliminary nature of the attack planning.

Following "The New York Times" story, several U.S. officials told reporters that the plan does not mean that any attack on Iraq is imminent. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "the Pentagon engages in contingency planning of all types around the world." Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that, "it is the responsibility of the Department of Defense to develop contingency plans and, from time to time, to update them."

Iraq has responded to the reports of U.S. military planning by saying that any attack would only strengthen the position of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said on a visit to South Africa over the weekend that: "whoever in the Arab world and in the Third World fights the Americans will become stronger in the eyes of his people, so no other leadership is going to come to Iraq. We will continue leading Iraq."

With talk of war mounting after the failed UN-Iraq talks in Vienna, some observers say that the prospect of Baghdad's readmitting arms inspectors is only likely to decrease in the months ahead. Baghdad has previously accused arms inspectors of spying for Washington and may balk at bringing in any new teams of foreign inspectors prior to a U.S. military campaign.

However, other observers say that the months ahead may yet see a last-minute agreement by Iraq to accept renewed inspections precisely to stave off just such an attack. Reuters quoted unidentified UN officials as saying over the weekend that Iraq may try to drag out diplomatic maneuvering, offering progress on some issues but not striking a deal on readmitting arms inspectors until an attack looks impossible to avoid otherwise.

In one example of progress on issues not directly related to arms inspections, Iraqi officials said during the Vienna talks that they have completed arrangements for turning over six truckloads of state papers taken from Kuwait during Iraq's occupation of the country. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted the UN to slap sanctions on Baghdad and led to a U.S.-led international coalition driving out the Iraqi forces in the 1991 Gulf War.