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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

Collapse of Iraq-UNSCOM Relations


Late October saw a dramatic collapse of relations between Iraq and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with investigating Iraq's past and surviving weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programmes and capabilities. Although the immediate crisis was subsequently defused, primarily by Russian diplomacy (see next issue), by mid-November strong countermeasures, possibly including military action, by the US and some of its allies seemed to be looming.

On 29 October, Iraq ordered all US members of UNSCOM inspection teams to leave its territory within a week. The move followed an UNSCOM determination of 7 October (see last issue) that Iraq was still concealing important information, and persisted in hindering UNSCOM activities, and a UN Security Council resolution of 23 October stipulating the imposition of a travel ban on Iraqi officials unless Iraq immediately complied with all UNSCOM demands. Iraq characterised both the UNSCOM verdict and the Security Council resolution as motivated by US, and to an almost equal degree British, spite and aggressive intent.

It was widely speculated that such an interpretation was designed to exacerbate evident tensions between the US and UK and the three other permanent Council members, China, France and Russia, all of whom abstained on the 23 October resolution. However, on 12 November the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution strongly criticising Iraq's threatened expulsion of the US officials. The expulsion, originally scheduled for no later than 6 November, was postponed by Iraq on 4 November, pending negotiations with a team sent to Iraq by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. On 13 November, that expulsion was carried out. The Chair of UNSCOM, Richard Butler of Australia, reacted immediately by removing all members of the inspection teams. It was at this point that a military escalation of the crisis seemed most likely, though it was also clear that many States, including almost all States in the Middle East, were vehemently opposed to any such development.

Details, Comment and Reaction

23 October Security Council Resolution

The Resolution (No. 1134) was passed by 10 votes to 0 with 5 abstentions - China, Egypt, France, Kenya, Russia. In addition to stating a "firm intention" of imposing a travel ban on "all Iraqi officials and members of the Iraqi armed forces who are responsible for or participate in instances of non-compliance", the resolution mandated a 6-month suspension in the Council's review of sanction against Iraq.

State Department spokesperson Lee McClenny described (24 October) the resolution as "a clear setback" for Iraq. US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson called it (23 October) a "strong but measured response." Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, stated after the vote: "This resolution, in fact, reflects the pre-decision of only two permanent members to impose their own sick motives and norms on the Security Council... Those norms are against international law." In a remarkable attack, presumably on China, France and Russia, the UK Ambassador to the UN, Sir John Weston, said shortly before the vote: "Some of our colleagues think that oil runs thicker than blood... But I think the Council has responsibilities. And they'd better live up to them."

29 October Iraqi Expulsion Announcement

Iraq's decision was transmitted in a letter to UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler from Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Aziz stated bluntly: "No individuals of American nationality shall participate in any activity of the Special Commission inside Iraq, particularly the activities of inspections, interviews, aerial and ground surveillance." Iraq subsequently made clear that surveillance flights by US U2 planes would henceforth not be tolerated.

Butler responded by suspending Commission operations and breaking off talks with Iraqi officials. Butler stated (29 October) that Iraq's demand was "not acceptable to me on an administrative level, nor is it consistent with the agreements that Iraq has already entered into or with the longstanding policy of the United Nations not to permit a circumstance where one member State would seek to exercise the right of decision or veto over the persons who...carry out objectively the work of the United Nations." Butler added:

"Let me ask you a question: who's next? Today the United States, tomorrow the United Kingdom, and so on. This is wrong." Official Security Council reaction to Iraq's demand came in a 29 October statement delivered by Council President Juan Samovia of Chile: "The Security Council condemns the decision of the Government of Iraq... It demands that Iraq cooperate fully...with the Special Commission...

The Security Council warns of the serious consequences of Iraq's failure to comply immediately and fully with its obligations under the relevant resolutions. The Council is determined to ensure rapid and full Iraqi compliance..."

US State Department spokesperson James Rubin, commented (29 October): "The Iraqi regime's [expulsion] statement is more than a refusal to comply with UNSC resolutions and to comply fully with UNSCOM. It is an attack on the very fundamentals of the UN system and in particular on UNSCOM's responsibility to carry out its mandate... [A]s a challenge to the Security Council's authority, this action has potentially grave consequences."

UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook issued a 29 October statement calling Iraq's demand "totally unacceptable," adding: "We expect the Security Council to respond in the strongest possible terms to this latest Iraqi move."

China reacted by calling on "the parties concerned to exercise restraint." Speaking on 30 October, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tang Guoqiang told reporters: "We hope Iraq will continue to cooperate with the United Nations... Meanwhile, the international community should factually evaluate the process through which Iraq carries out the resolution, and take relevant measures in good time."

Russia also urged Iraqi cooperation. On 29 October, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Valery Nesterushkin argued: "Moscow believes the constructive cooperation of the Iraqi leadership with the Special Commission is the only correct and realistic way that will lead to a prompt lifting of sanctions... Any other approach is fraught with negative consequences, above all for Iraq itself."

On 31 October, speaking in Cairo, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said succinctly: "We are against any use of force against Iraq." Primakov added: "We do not think the decision taken by Baghdad is the best possible decision, especially after the emergence of certain positive indications... We think the decision by Baghdad is very, very serious and has put us in a very difficult situation."

Build-Up to 12 November Security Council Resolution

On 31 October, Butler defiantly announced that Commission activities would resume, with the full participation of US nationals - reported to be 6 in number, out of a total of around 40 inspectors currently in Iraq - on 3 November. On that date, Iraq prevented any inspections from taking place - a pattern repeated over the next days. US flights, however, did proceed, despite Iraqi threats to shoot them down.

On 6 November, the Security Council expressed concern that Iraq had "interfered" with UNSCOM monitoring equipment. Council President Qin Husan of China told reporters: "To interfere in any way in the ongoing monitoring is not in conformity with the relevant Council resolutions. The Council hopes that any recurrence will be avoided." On 10 November, UN Secretary-General Annan announced that his special envoys - Lakhdar Brahimi (Algeria), Emilio Cardenas (Argentina) and Jan Eliasson (Sweden), had been unable to persuade Iraq to end "this unfortunate situation by complying with the requirements of the Council." Annan said he had asked the envoys to stress that if Iraq complied, it could be expected that "the Security Council, in turn, would be prepared to listen to the concerns of the Government of Iraq."

On 11 November, a spokesperson for President Yeltsin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, reiterated Russia's "decisive opposition to using the United Nations Security Council as a cover for military strikes against Baghdad." Also on 11 November, Butler contested a claim by Aziz that US nationals compose almost a third of UNSCOM's total pool of around 180 Commission members. According to Butler, 35 States contribute experts to the Commission, with the four largest contingents coming from Chile (22%), the US (14%), the UK (11%) and New Zealand (9%).

12 November Resolution

On 12 November, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1137, imposing the travel ban threatened in resolution 1134. The resolution also expressed the Council's determination to take "further measures" to resolve the situation.

The resolution was heralded by the US and UK. UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook issued a 12 November statement saying "[t]he UN has responded to Saddam Hussein's provocation swiftly, strongly and unanimously. ... Saddam should be in no doubt that the Security Council is united and determined." President Clinton issued the following statement (12 November):

"With one voice, the Security Council has made it clear that Iraq's actions are unacceptable, that it must submit to investigations into Baghdad's ballistic missile, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs, and that sanctions will remain in place until Iraq cooperates. For Iraq, there is one simple way out of the box Saddam Hussein has put it in: comply with the will of the international community."

Of the five States who had abstained on 23 October, Egypt's Ambassador to the UN, Nabil El-Araby, said his Government had "no alternative but to support the resolution,"; France's Ambassador, Alain Dejammet, said that "right to the last minute we thought reason would prevail. Unfortunately that was not the case,"; and Kenya's Ambassador, Njunga Mahuga, said that the resolution was "balanced and sends a clear message to Iraq."

However, Russia's Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, speaking to reporters after the vote, was insistent that the vote should not be interpreted as backing for the US approach to the crisis, which he characterised as the view that "there is only one way out - to be firm until the very end and to use as much force as necessary... Wrong. This is a very wrong assumption." Lavrov also questioned the legitimacy of the US using warplanes to accompany U2 flights: "[O]ur question [is] - what was the arrangement for these planes to fly under the authority of the Special Commission?"

13 November Expulsion

Iraq finally ordered the immediate expulsion of all US UNSCOM officials on 13 November. In a statement carried by the Iraqi News Agency (INA), the Government stated: "All American inspectors should leave Iraq immediately until the American administration and the Security Council decide to review their irresponsible policy and their dealing with Iraq." The 6 US inspectors were ordered to leave Iraq by land. The same day, speaking at the UN in New York, Tariq Aziz told reporters: "UNSCOM is supposed to be an international agency. It can work with or without Americans. There are many inspectors working under UNSCOM." The Security Council issued a statement on the evening of 13 November condemning Iraq "in the strongest terms" and demanding the "immediate and unequivocal revocation of this action." UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler reacted (13 November) by raising the issue of what damage to UNSCOM's efforts Iraq may have already achieved: "In this last 10 days when they were moving toward what happened in the last 24 hours, they started to impede our cameras, move equipment, prevent our inspections..." Butler predicted that his teams would soon be back in Iraq "one way or another": "We have to find a way to bring Iraq back to its senses on this issue and to get inspectors back in the country."

As soon as the expulsion was announced, Butler withdrew all his inspectors from the country. He later (14 November) defended this move against reported criticism by China and Russia: "Had I allowed the Americans to be pushed, ejected from the country on six hours' notice and stayed there with a non-American UNSCOM, I would simply have completed Saddam Hussein's policy for him." Butler said he understood that some Council members would have preferred to consult with him before he made his decision, but added that the "awfully short time-frame we were placed under" had made this impossible.

On 14 November, the Security Council convened the board of arms commissioners, which normally meets twice a year to advise UNSCOM, to discuss the crisis. The move apparently came at the behest of Russia. The same day, the Russian Duma passed a resolution urging Yeltsin to "take all necessary measures not to allow the use of any military force against the Republic of Iraq." The same day, Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev said he was confident that "there is enough sober-mindedness around to resolve the situation in Iraq without military intervention." A very different tone was set by UK Foreign Secretary Cook and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, meeting in Edinburgh on 14 November. Albright told reporters:

"The Foreign Secretary informed me of Britain's intention to beef up its forces in the Gulf at the same time we are doing so... Hopefully, this will help persuade Saddam Hussein that there is no salvation in defiance and no reward for recalcitrance."

On 15 November, Iraq's Babel newspaper, owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, argued that "American and British interests, Embassies and naval ships...in the Arab region should be the targets of military operations and...attacks by Arab political forces."

Reports: US - resolution a setback for Iraq, Associated Press, 24 October; UN resolution on Iraq passes, Associated Press, 24 October; Text - Rubin statement, Iraqi regime announcement on UNSCOM, United States Information Service, 29 October; Text - UN Security Council statement on Iraq, United States Information Service, 29 October; UNSCOM suspends operations in Iraq, United States Information Service, 29 October; Russia warns Iraq against blocking UN inspectors, Reuters, 29 October; Iraq/UNSCOM, UK Foreign Office Daily Bulletin, 30 October; Restraint urged over Iraqi inspection ban, Reuters, 30 October; Russia opposes use of force against Iraq, Reuters, 31 October; Secretary-General to inform Security Council of nature and outcome of his initiative on Iraq, United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6388, 10 November; Russia firmly opposed to strikes on Iraq, Reuters, 11 November; UN-Iraq have differing UNSCOM counts, United Press International, 11 November; Security Council imposes travel ban on Iraqi officials, United Nations Press Release SC/6441, 12 November; Text - Clinton statement on UNSC resolution on Iraq Nov. 12, United States Information Service, 12 November; UN Security Council imposes new sanctions on Iraqi officials, United States Information Service, 12 November; Russian questions US fighter escorts for U2s, Reuters, 12 November; Security Council condemns Iraq's expulsion of Special Commission members, United Nations Press Release SC/6442, 13 November; Foreign Secretary's statement following UN SCR on Iraq, UK Foreign Office Daily Bulletin, 13 November; Aziz says Americans must quit Thursday, United Press International, 13 November; Russian Parliament backs Iraq in UN dispute, Reuters, 14 November; Transcript - Albright, Cook discuss increasing pressure on Iraq, United States Information Service, 14 November; UN's Butler says inspectors will be back, Reuters, 14 November; UN arms inspector defends pullout, Associated Press, 14 November; US arms panel to meet, diplomatic options narrow, Reuters, 14 November; Iraqi daily urges attacks on US targets, Reuters, 15 November.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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