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Iraq: Letter Could Set Back New UN Resolution By Months

Iraq's promise to allow the return of United Nations weapons inspectors has altered the debate at UN headquarters over threatened U.S. military strikes. RFE/RL looks at how soon the inspectors might return and how quickly they would be able to determine whether or not Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction.

Prague, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad's offer to allow the speedy and unconditional return of United Nations weapons inspectors into Iraq may have pushed back a vote on a toughly worded UN Security Council resolution until mid-December or even later.

The United States and Britain, both permanent members of the Security Council, said yesterday that work should go ahead on a new resolution that sets a deadline for Iraq to comply with its UN obligations or face military strikes. But analysts say Washington isn't likely to push for a vote on such a resolution until it is certain it will be passed by the 15-member Security Council.

The three other permanent Security Council members, Russia, France and China, have said no additional resolutions are necessary unless the new inspection mission determines that Iraq is continuing to flout its obligations.

That position sets the stage for what could be difficult negotiations within the Security Council in the weeks ahead as inspectors attempt to conduct their work.

Under a December 1999 Security Council resolution, the new UN inspection mission, called UNMOVIC, would have 60 days after it begins work to list the major remaining weapons issues and present them to the Security Council for approval.

Once the inspection teams are fully operational, they have a maximum of 120 days to report to the Security Council about Iraqi cooperation and progress on any remaining disarmament issues.

Arranging the details for the return of inspectors from UNMOVIC and from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is not expected to be completed until 6 October. The IAEA has said it would take up to 10 days after receiving UN approval for the new mission before its nuclear experts would be on the ground and working.

According to that timeline, the deadline for the first UNMOVIC report would be 17 December, and the final report would be due on 12 February of next year.

Initial steps toward the return of UN inspectors began yesterday, less than 24 hours after Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri submitted a letter to the Security Council promising to allow inspectors back.

Speaking at UN headquarters late yesterday, Sabri confirmed that talks are already under way on details of that return. "We are ready to discuss these arrangements, and we are ready for a speedy and immediate resumption of the inspection process," Sabri said.

Meanwhile, the chief of the UNMOVIC inspections mission, Hans Blix, was meeting at UN headquarters with Iraqi delegates to arrange logistics for UNMOVIC's future work: details such as how and where the team would arrive, where it would stay, and what vehicles it would use to conduct its work.

Iraqi diplomat Sayed Hassan told reporters after the talks with Blix that both sides had agreed to finalize the logistical details at a meeting in Vienna during the week of 30 September 30. "We agreed to meet in Vienna in 10 days to finalize the practical arrangements. Also in this meeting, we reiterated and expressed the readiness of Iraq for the speedy and smooth resumption of UNMOVIC and IAEA activities," Hassan said.

Blix's spokesman, Ewen Buchanan, issued a statement after the hour-long meeting confirming the scheduling of a follow-up meeting in Vienna. Buchanan said Iraqi officials last night had asked for further time to study Blix's proposals and to consult with Baghdad.

Buchanan also said the Iraqi delegation had promised to provide UNMOVIC with a backlog of semi-annual monitoring declarations at the meeting in Vienna.

In addition to dismantling its weapons of mass destruction and allowing UN weapons inspectors to confirm its disarmament efforts, Iraq is obliged under the UN's Gulf War cease-fire resolutions to submit declarations twice each year on its chemical, biological, and nuclear arsenals.

Iraq has not filed those declarations since June 1998 and has not allowed weapons inspectors into the country since December of that same year.

For its part, Washington has accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of trying to stall for time with a questionable promise of allowing weapons inspections to resume.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States will continue to push for a new UN resolution on disarmament. Washington wants that resolution to include an enforcement clause under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that would authorize the use of force in case Iraq reneges on its promises and blocks the work of the inspectors.

In tandem with that diplomatic effort, U.S. military officials are pushing forward with efforts to mobilize forces in the Persian Gulf region.

About 600 key staff members from U.S. Central Command in Florida are to be sent to Qatar in November to set up a headquarters there. Some 2,000 U.S. Marines also plan to stage an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait this month.

The U.S. Army has begun moving forces into Kuwait as part of a six-month rotation of armored units there.

Although there are only about 5,000 U.S. Army troops in Kuwait at the moment, the United States has stockpiled supplies and has logistical support to increase that force quickly by 25,000 troops.

"The New York Times" reported today that Washington has asked Britain for permission to set up shelters for B-2 "stealth" bombers at its air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

There also are 20 U.S. Navy ships in the region, including two aircraft carriers, the "USS Abraham Lincoln" and the "USS George Washington."