Last-minute talks may avert war with Iraq

By Robert H. Reid Associated Press Published:

BAGHDAD, Iraq _ A "rather optimistic" U.N. chief Kofi Annan engaged in last-chance talks with the Iraqis Sunday and said he expected a pact in writing that would open suspected weapons sites and prevent a U.S. military strike.

Officials from both sides expressed hope that a formula could be found that would satisfy U.N. Security Council demands for full access to all suspected weapons sites, while satisfying Iraqi claims for national rights.

As the talks adjourned after 2 a.m. Sunday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said they were "going well" and would resume in several hours.

But it was clear that obstacles remained. "I think the secretary-general feels some progress has been made," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said. "It's not done yet...We'll try again."

In Washington, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said Saturday that, while the United States hopes Annan's diplomatic mission succeeds, "U.S. military preparations are proceeding without regard to these talks."

He spoke after a 90-minute meeting with President Clinton and his top foreign policy advisers.

Annan, who arrived in the Iraqi capital Friday, said he was hopeful he would meet with President Saddam Hussein later Sunday. The Iraqi agency said Saddam was briefed on the talks, but gave no details.

A meeting by Annan with the Iraqi leader would be a sign that Iraq was prepared to open eight presidential sites to U.N. weapons inspectors.

Annan said he expected the Iraqis would accept a written agreement, which would then have to be endorsed by the United States.

"I expect to get a document," Annan said after talks Saturday. "I am rather optimistic."

The U.N. chief began his official meetings at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. Half of the three-hour Saturday morning session was devoted to a private meeting between Annan and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

Afterward, the full delegations _ nine Iraqis and eight U.N. officials _ met for another 90 minutes at the Foreign Ministry and then met again for more than three hours late into the evening. Much of the time, though, Annan and Aziz were alone.

Early Sunday morning the two sides held two more hours of discussions before adjourning until late morning.

Before Saturday's sessions, a member of the U.N. delegation, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, had said the situation was "extremely polarized."

At issue are Security Council demands that Iraq allow U.N. inspectors unrestricted access to all areas, including the eight sites Baghdad has placed off-limits.

The inspectors are seeking to determine if Iraq has complied with U.N. orders, issued at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to destroy all long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

That is the main condition for lifting crippling economic sanctions that the council imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, touching off the war.

Iraq says it has complied with the orders but that the United States and Britain manipulated the inspections to maintain the sanctions.

The United States, which has deployed 25,000 troops to the Gulf region, has said it will refuse any deal that it believes undermines the authority of the U.N. inspection program.

The State Department, meanwhile, issued a warning to Americans in Iraq to "depart as soon as possible." The White House said the warning was routine and should not be taken as a sign that military action was imminent.

On Saturday, Denis Halliday, the U.N. relief coordinator for Iraq, said if a military strike occurred, food shortages would develop quickly because the United Nations did not have enough in stock to feed Iraq's 22 million people.

In a government-organized demonstration, 62 coffins were paraded through Baghdad in a symbolic funeral for children Iraq says have died recently due to shortages of medicine under U.N. sanctions.

Iran warned Saturday that a military strike will send a flood of Iraqi refugees into Iran, and Turkey rejected a U.N. appeal to leave open its borders for refugees fleeing possible military strikes against Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, pro-Iraq rallies continued in several West Bank towns and Jordan, where stone-throwing demonstrators injured two policemen and set fire to a state-owned bank. At least 20 people were injured in Maan, Jordan.

Annan must negotiate a settlement acceptable to the 15-member Security Council, including the United States, which has taken the strongest position against concessions to Baghdad.

Several proposals have been offered to resolve the crisis, including allowing diplomats to accompany U.N. inspectors to the sites. But U.S. officials have insisted that the inspections continue to be run by the U.N. Special Commission, which the Iraqis have denounced.

Iraq's state-run media on Saturday noted a U.N. report that said the eight presidential sites covered only 12.6 square miles. President Clinton had said one compound alone was larger than Washington _ about 60 square miles.

A commentator on state-run Iraqi Radio said the U.N. report Friday

showed "how shallow American allegations are."

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.