Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 13, February - March 1997
Progress in Iraq-UNSCOM Missile DisputeOn 20 February, Rolf Ekeus, the Chair of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) arrived in Baghdad to again attempt to resolve the latest controversy between the two sides: the question of whether Iraq is withholding information on its ballistic missiles programme, or is even hiding some missiles from the Commission. On 21 February, Ekeus discussed the issue with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz. That day, the official Ath-Thawra newspaper stated:
"Iraq is not hiding missiles or information on its weapons, and it isn't our fault if Ekeus doesn't believe us... We are trying to convince Ekeus and to respond to all his queries and requests for clarification, but we don't know what more he wants..."
A major breakthrough was reported on 23 February, when Iraq backed away from its position of not allowing UNSCOM to remove missile components from Iraq for analysis. According to a joint Iraq-UNSCOM statement:
"The government of Iraq agreed to the removal of remnants of proscribed missile engines from Iraq for in-depth technical assessment by the Commission..."
As for where the analysis might take place, Ekeus noted, at a press conference with Iraq's Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Riyadh al-Qaisy:
"We have so far [received] offers from the US and France, and the question of further offers from Russia is under consideration."
Following Ekeus's departure, Oil Minster Amir Muhammed Rasheed stated (28 February): "We have during the last visit given [Ekeus] solid information...[and a] very extensive accounting of the Iraqi missiles. ... We have every reason to believe that in the coming two weeks he will acknowledge that Iraq has fulfilled its obligation in this major area of accounting of the missiles."
On 28 February, following a meeting between Ekeus and UK Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, the British Foreign Office issued a statement emphasising continuing suspicions over Iraqi actions and intentions:
"Ambassador Ekeus said this morning that Iraq was working towards developing a capability to hit long range targets with chemical weapons. We know that Saddam would like to acquire long range missiles. But we have no evidence that he has yet developed this capability."
The 23 February joint statement also referred to remaining questions over chemical weapons, saying both sides had already "started a detailed review of the chemical weapons area at the highest political level." At the press conference, Ekeus said UNSCOM still had "quite substantial and serious" concerns about Iraqi stocks and capability. The concerns, he elaborated, "relate to the counting of the warheads for chemical warfare. We are talking about the introduction of VX, which is a nerve agent many times more lethal than Sarin."
On 27 February, a report on BBC Television alleged that UNSCOM was now convinced that Iraq possessed stocks of chemical weapons containing VX nerve gas. During the report, Ekeus ruled out the possibility of ongoing production - but not the possibility of renewed production in the future:
"We are convinced that production is not going on because we have our inspectors covering all production facilities... But we are convinced that all elements to establish a production line may be in the country and we would watch that they never put that production line in place."
Early February saw some fevered speculation about a possible US military strike against Iraq. A 4 February report in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung alleged an imminent US decision on an attack using Tomahawk cruise missiles; the attack, it claimed, would aim to strike Iraq's suspect hidden missile stocks or missile-development facilities.
US and UNSCOM officials moved quickly to allay concern. State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns told reporters on 4 February:
"The United States always reserves the right to use its military force to defend its national interest anywhere in the world, but I see no reason to heighten your concern in any way pertaining to the situation in the Middle East... There's no change of policy here... There's no heightened concern in Washington."
The same day, UNSCOM's Deputy Director, Charles Duelfer, observed:
"We believe they may have an operational missile force, but there is nothing we have discovered recently that would provoke this report..."
On 5 February, the Washington Post claimed that the US and UNSCOM had uncovered evidence on an Iraqi research programme on long-range missiles. It was claimed that Iraq had obtained software programmes used in simulating missile launches and flights. The Post article quoted Duelfer describing the alleged development as "another indication in Iraq of interest in long range missiles, and that's the fundamental problem for us."
Reports: Iraq developing missiles, US mulls strike -paper, Reuter News Reports, 4 February; US dampens speculation on Iraq strike, Reuter News Reports, 4 February; US sees no 'heightened concern' over Iraq, Reuter News Reports, 4 February; US official silent on possible Iraq strike, Reuter News Reports, 4 February; UN dismisses report US to strike Iraq, Reuter News Reports, 4 February; US, UN uncovers new evidence Iraq is researching long-range missiles, Agence France-Presse International News, 5 February; UN disarmament chief meets Iraq's Deputy PM in hunt for missiles, Agence France-Presse International News, 21 February; Iraq ends standoff over removing missile parts, Agence France-Presse International News, 23 February; Iraq tries to develop nerve gas missiles - BBC, Reuter News Reports, 27 February; Iraq given UN extensive missile data - Minister, Reuter News Reports, 28 February; Meeting between the Foreign Secretary and Chairman of UN Special Commission, UK Foreign Office statement, 28 February.
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