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UN: Diplomatic Maneuvering Intensifies Ahead Of Next Blix Report On Iraq

Iraq has approved U-2 surveillance flights in another gesture that responds to concerns of chief UN inspectors. Meanwhile, France -- backed by Russia and Germany -- is pressing ahead with its proposal to intensify inspections as an alternative to threatening military action against Iraq. U.S. and British officials dismiss the Iraqi moves as inadequate and say the French proposal is meaningless without Iraqi cooperation. RFE/RL reports on the latest maneuvers by UN Security Council members ahead of Friday's (14 February) key briefing by chief inspector Hans Blix.

United Nations, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi government has advised chief UN inspector Hans Blix that U-2 surveillance flights can now take place unconditionally, an important demand of UN monitors who have urged more Iraqi cooperation.

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Muhammad al-Duri, yesterday sent a letter to Blix's office confirming the overflights would be allowed, reversing Baghdad's decision not to allow the U.S.-made U-2s to fly. He said flights by French or Russian surveillance planes would also be acceptable.

Al-Duri spoke to reporters yesterday about Baghdad's decision. "The Iraqi government accepts to have the flights of U-2, the surveillance of U-2, [as well as French] Mirage and [Russian] Antonov [aircraft] in Iraq. That's in conformity with the Security Council resolutions," he said.

Iraq had said it could not guarantee the planes' safety because of U.S. and British bombing of the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.

U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday dismissed the Iraqi decision permitting U-2 flights as an attempt to "stall for time."

Al-Duri said the U.S. will not be satisfied with anything less than war. "The United States, as far as I know, they will not be satisfied with anything because they have their own agenda. You know, they choose the path of war and, hopefully, they might be persuaded by the international community not to take this dangerous step, this very, very dangerous step for both sides -- Iraq and the United States -- and all of the region and also the entire world," al-Duri said.

The Iraqi decision follows other conciliatory moves, such as permitting private UN interviews with Iraqi scientists and handing over documents responding to unanswered questions about VX nerve gas and anthrax. But Blix has spoken cautiously about the Iraqi gestures, and there is belief that his crucial progress report to the UN Security Council on 14 February will continue to rate Iraqi cooperation with inspections as poor.

The United States, which is massing troops in the Persian Gulf, is expected to press the council to consider action against Iraq shortly after the Blix report. At a briefing yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed Washington's frustration at what it views as Baghdad's reluctance to come clean on its weapons of mass destruction: "The [UN] Resolution [1441] did not ask Iraq to make steps. The resolution asks Iraq for full, immediate and active cooperation. We know what that looks like. We've seen it elsewhere."

The Iraqi announcement on U-2 flights came as France, Russia, and Germany issued a joint declaration calling for tougher UN weapons inspections in Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac read the declaration in Paris in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chirac said war should only be considered a last resort in efforts to bring about Iraq's disarmament.

"There is still an alternative to war, we are sure of that. The use of force would constitute only the last resort. Russia, Germany, and France are determined to do everything they can to ensure that Iraq is disarmed through peaceful means," Chirac said.

For his part, Putin stressed the value of maintaining pressure through inspections as an alternative to war: "[The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad] el-Baradei and Blix have just made a statement in which they notice that Iraq is moving further toward meeting the demands of the UN inspectors. Iraq has provided additional information and expressed its willingness to cooperate further. There is an obvious progress in the cooperation between UN inspectors and Iraq. As President [Chirac] said -- and I totally agree with him -- we are willing to continue on this path, that is, by exerting every possible pressure on Baghdad."

At UN headquarters, a French diplomat told RFE/RL that France will circulate an informal paper ahead of the Blix meeting this week among council diplomats, in which it proposes to reinforce the inspection mission. France has suggested that the number of inspectors be doubled or tripled and is expected to offer French surveillance planes to help monitor suspected weapons sites.

The French diplomat stressed that there is no request for UN peacekeepers to be deployed, despite published reports suggesting this.

At present, the UN inspection mission has more than 100 inspectors and 150 support staff in Iraq and is training dozens more. Blix says it aims to build a roster of 350 experts.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the French proposal fails to address the central issue of Iraqi noncompliance. A U.S. diplomat, speaking to RFE/RL yesterday, said the issue of enhanced inspections is only effective if there is Iraqi cooperation. He said Iraq's recent moves toward cooperation are inadequate.

The United States and Britain have said repeatedly that time is running out for Iraq to show full compliance or face military action. They are supported on the 15-member Security Council by Spain and Bulgaria, but most other members have said they support continued inspections. It is not yet clear whether Washington will seek a new council resolution authorizing force. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they already have authority to act because of Iraqi violations of existing resolutions.

A diplomat from Pakistan, a new nonpermanent member of the Security Council, told RFE/RL yesterday that his government had not yet seen the French proposal, which is expected to be circulated tomorrow. But he added, "Anything that advances the cause of peace, we are interested in."

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called an unofficial meeting with council members on 13 February to discuss humanitarian plans if the United States attacks Iraq. Annan told reporters yesterday he is still hopeful the crisis can be resolved peacefully but that his office has a responsibility to do contingency planning.