Iraq says it will comply with the United Nations Security Council and allow the return of UN arms inspectors. But questions are already being asked about whether Baghdad will violate the UN's terms -- and just what kind of violation might trigger American action. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports from Washington.
Washington, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq yesterday said it will comply with the United Nations Security Council and allow the return of UN arms inspectors.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said his country would comply without conditions with resolution 1441, which was passed by a 15-0 vote last week by the UN Security Council.
The resolution had given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein until tomorrow (Friday) to accept the return of weapons inspectors to his country for the first time since 1998 and abide by other strict terms of disarmament or else face "serious consequences."
Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohammed al-Douri had this to say to reporters at the UN's New York headquarters:
"The letter says that Iraq accepts the resolution and accepts the return of the inspectors as it was envisioned in the resolution."
Al-Douri added that Iraq made its decision to avert war:
"We choose always the peaceful ways and means and this is a part of our policy, vis-a-vis to protect our country, to our nation, to protect the region also from the threat of war, which is real."
U.S. President George W. Bush meanwhile is keeping Iraq under the threat of war to maintain pressure on Saddam to comply fully.
Speaking yesterday ahead of the Iraqi announcement, Bush said the United States would not tolerate any "deception, denial or deceit." He indicated this would constitute a "material breach" of the resolution, which could trigger military action.
The president added Washington will lead a "coalition of the willing" to force Iraq to disarm -- should Saddam not comply and the UN fail to act:
"I have told the United Nations we will be glad to consult with them. But the resolution does not prevent us from doing what needs to be done -- which is hold Saddam Hussein [to] account. We hope that he disarms. We hope that he will listen to the world. The world has spoken."
Annan visited Washington yesterday to brief Bush on Iraq. The UN Secretary-General said the weapons inspectors are due to arrive in Baghdad as early as Monday. The inspectors would begin their search for weapons of mass destruction in another week or two.
Iraq's acceptance was welcomed by governments, but the country's letter to the UN has already generated several questions.
Under the resolution, Iraq must submit a "full, accurate and complete" declaration by December 8 of any programs it has to develop or deliver chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. It must also list any materials it has that could have military applications -- so-called "dual-use" goods and facilities.
But Al-Douri said Iraq's letter to Annan denies that Baghdad has any weapons of mass destruction:
"Iraq [does not have] and will not have any mass destruction weapons, so we are not worried about the inspectors when they will be back in the country."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday would not comment on whether al-Douri's statement constituted a "material breach" of the resolution. But he reiterated the U.S. believes Saddam possesses chemical and biological weapons, and is working on developing nuclear arms.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was also asked at a press briefing if Iraq had begun to deceive the UN by denying it has weapons of mass destruction. Boucher said:
"Iraq will be called upon to demonstrate its compliance through real cooperation and, as the resolution says, any failure to disclose or any interference shall constitute a new, 'material breach.'"
Annan, asked the same question, said that it is too early to say whether Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors.
What constitutes a "material breach" of the resolution looks set to be a prickly issue among the Security Council's permanent five members. France and Russia, both permanent members, in the past have sought to limit the possibility of military action against Iraq.
Inspectors have until February 21 to file their initial report, though they must inform the Security Council of serious violations sooner. Any permanent Security Council member can also bring complaints to the body at any time.
Some analysts say Bush will likely seize on any Iraqi mistake as a pretext for war, while France and Russia would be reluctant to adopt such an aggressive stance.
Analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies tells RFE/RL that he believes the Bush administration will allow the inspectors time to pursue their work. He says it is unlikely to use a minor violation as a trigger for action.
But Cordesman adds that Iraq already faces a key possible violation -- the list of weapons and arms sites that it must hand in by December 8:
"If the list has major omissions, if it consists of the kinds of lies they told in the past, it is virtually a declaration of war."
In that case, Cordesman says, Bush himself has already clearly spelled out what he will do: In the event of major Iraqi non-compliance, the U.S. will consult with the UN. But if the UN fails to act, America will lead a "coalition of the willing" on its own.