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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

Transformation in Iraq-UN Relations


After months of hostility, acrimony and extreme military and diplomatic tension, March saw peace break out between Iraq and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) investigating Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programmes. By the end of the period under review here - 25 March - preparations were complete for UNSCOM, accompanied by diplomatic escorts selected by the UN, to begin inspecting eight Presidential sites, access to which had lain at the heart of the crisis resolved by the 23 February Memorandum-of-Understanding (MOU) signed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Tariq Aziz, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, in Baghdad on 23 February (for the full text of the MOU, see last issue). The MOU essentially reaffirmed UNSCOM's right to inspect wherever and whenever it considered necessary. Iraq's dignity during the inspection process was also stressed, to be symbolised by the presence of non-UNSCOM diplomats (referred to as "dignity police" in some reports); Iraq's desire to see the inspections concluded as soon as possible, leading to the lifting of sanctions in place since 1990, was also sympathetically registered by the Secretary-General.

Throughout March, other inspections were carried out, with both UNSCOM and non-UNSCOM officials characterising Iraqi cooperation as beyond reproach. Huge military forces, predominantly US and UK, remained in the area, however, and are anticipated to stay until the completion of UNSCOM's work. Although no date has been set, or suggested, for that completion, it is generally thought to be at least weeks, and quite possibly months, away. Despite the welcome developments since 23 February, it was also clear that any use of those forces, in the event of another breakdown in Iraq-UN relations, would be implacably opposed by the majority of UN States, including China, France, Russia and almost all States in the Middle East.

Main Developments, 1-25 March

On 2 March, the 23 February MOU was unanimously endorsed by the Security Council. The key section of resolution 1154, preambular paragraph 3, "[s]tresses that compliance by the Government of Iraq with its obligations, repeated again in the Memorandum-of-Understanding, to accord immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to the Special Commission and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] in conformity with the relevant resolutions is necessary for the implementation of resolution 687 (1991), but that any violation would have severest consequences for Iraq."

Much debate in the Council lay behind the phrase "severest consequences": after the resolution was passed, too, an interpretative chasm yawned between two of the Permanent Members - the UK and US - who saw the phrase as confirming the legitimacy of any military action that might be taken following non-compliance, and the other three Permanent Members - China, France and Russia - who read the phrase as leaving open to the Council as a whole the right to decide what response the UN should take. The latter interpretation was stressed immediately after the adoption of the resolution by the Chinese and French Ambassadors to the UN, Qin Huasan and Alain Dejammet. According to Huasan: "the passing of this resolution in no way means the Security Council authorizes any nation to use force against Iraq." According to Dejammet, the resolution was "confirming the prerogatives of the Security Council in a way which excludes any idea of automaticity."

With customary nuance, Secretary-General Annan did not reject either interpretation, making clear (2 March) that the threat of military action certainly existed as an option: "Iraq fully understands that if this effort to ensure compliance through negotiation is obstructed, by evasion or deception, as were previous efforts, diplomacy may not have a second chance." Questioned on American ABC Television on 8 March, Annan elaborated slightly: "If the US had to strike, I think some sort of consultations with the other members would be required." Quizzed about Annan's interpretation, White House spokesperson Mike McCurry commented on 9 March:

"He said simply that he expected the United States would consult further in the event that there was need to take additional action... We have had very high-level consultations with all members of the Security Council. If there were an abrogation of this current Memorandum-of-Understanding by the Government of Iraq, our judgment is [that] the disposition regarding use of force would be much different than it has been in the past..."

Other tensions were apparent in the Council in early March, when it was reported that the US had opposed the nomination of a Russian official to a new post of Deputy to UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler of Australia, the recipient of much criticism from Russia and many other States for his handling of the February crisis and preceding developments. Speaking on 6 March, US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson did not openly oppose the Russian suggestion, but successfully conveyed his lack of enthusiasm for it: "It's a UN decision... We think UNSCOM works well, that UNSCOM is effective as it is. But we will support Chairman Butler if he feels he has to diversify personnel."

There are important new, non-UNSCOM figures on the scene, however. On 5 March, Prakash Shah, India's former UN Ambassador, was appointed by Annan as his Special Envoy in Baghdad. Shah will be based in the Iraqi capital for an initial period of six months. According to the Secretary-General: "He will lend his support to existing United Nations activities in the arms control, humanitarian and economic and social fields while giving special attention to any crisis or problem which might benefit from intervention by United Nations headquarters."

Earlier, on 26 February, Annan appointed Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, the Under-Secretary for Disarmament Affairs, as the official to head the team of diplomats to accompany UNSCOM inspectors during visits to the particularly sensitive Presidential sites. Dhanapala visited Iraq from 11-14 March. On 14 March, a UN statement said he was leaving "satisfied with the discussions and the assurances from the Iraqi authorities" and confident of the authenticity "of their decision to implement the [MOU] in letter and spirit."

On 19 March, Dhanapala released the names of the 19 diplomats to be dispatched to Iraq under his charge. The team includes one diplomat from each of the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council, one diplomat each from non-Permanent Members Brazil, Gabon, Gambia, Japan, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea and Sweden, plus one diplomat each from Canada, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Sudan. Dhanapala returned to Iraq on 22 March and was joined by 18 of his diplomatic team in Baghdad on 24 March. Inspections of the Presidential sites were due to begin (and duly took place) by the end of the month - see next issue for coverage.

UNSCOM inspections of non-Presidential sites, which had taken place even during the February crisis, proceeded in an entirely new atmosphere in early and mid March, most notably inspections between 6-9 March by UNSCOM Team 227 led by Scott Ritter of the US - accused by Iraq in January of being an American spy. Butler gave a delighted account of Team 227's experiences on 13 March:

"[The inspectors] were given access of a kind that we've never had before in terms of the places we got into and in terms of the numbers of inspectors and ways in which we got into those places, including, for example, the headquarters of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. ... Ritter was able to report to the Secretary-General that he considers - and I certainly agree - that we had established some new procedures and some new benchmarks there for access to sites that Iraq chooses to declare as sensitive... We are hopeful that having gained that access, established the practicality and usefulness of the procedure...it continues to work well in the future. ... There is a new spirit out there; I think that's what the Ritter exercise shows. The Secretary-General has come back with a pledge of cooperation by Iraq and it seems to be being fulfilled. I really welcome that. So far the tests have come up well..."

Details of the new procedures were given to the Security Council by Butler and Dhanapala on 9 March. According to a press briefing given by unnamed UN officials, the procedures specify that at least 2 members of the diplomatic team accompany each UNSCOM inspection of a Presidential site. The job of the accompanying diplomats will be "to observe that the provisions of Memorandum-of-Understanding and the present specific detailed procedures are being implemented in good faith" and "to report on any matter they deem appropriate". According to the officials, the procedures further state:

"Upon entry into a Presidential site, the [UNSCOM] team shall conduct itself in a manner consonant with the nature of the site... It shall take into consideration any observations the Iraqi representative may wish to make regarding entry into a particular structure and then decide upon the appropriate course of action. This shall not, however, impede the ability of the team to fulfill its tasks as mandated under the relevant Security Council resolutions."

In a 13 March BBC Television interview, Butler elaborated on the priorities of his inspection teams. These revolved around unaccounted-for materials, warheads and missiles related to "the black hole that is their biological programme, about which they have never told us the truth." Some of the warheads, Butler stated, "were loaded with chemical and/or biological agents that Iraq has not yet allowed us to adequately account for." He added:

"There is a new technical team going into the field in a few days time with some new, special equipment that might be able to give an account of those warheads... [W]e [also] have some remaining issues with respect to missiles that Iraq has not been able or willing to tell us the truth about."

Speaking in New York on 19 March, Butler told ABC Television that with respect to the Presidential sites, UNSCOM planned to survey 1,050 buildings over an area of 12.2 square miles (31.5 square kilometres) in order to "see what they look like, what functions they perform, get it all together so that we can go back in a more detailed way in the future." Butler arrived in Baghdad on 22 March - his first visit since January. He told reporters that if the "new spirit of cooperation" continued "we can do our job...without the passage of too much time." Butler met Tariq Aziz on 23 March, and then held a further, unscheduled meeting with him the next day. Butler observed after the second meeting:

"January was tough. That's for sure. Today was a light-year different. ... We are professionals with a job to do. I see it now having the prospect of being done well and fast. ... The new spirit of constructiveness which I talked about when I arrived was derived mainly from what had been happening outdoors on inspections. Now indoors it was the same. I was very pleased."

Also on 24 March, the New York Times reported that a leading Iraqi weapons scientist - a chemical weapons expert, Nassir Hindawi - had been arrested trying to leave the country. Reacting to the story, Butler told reporters (24 March) that Iraq had said UNSCOM could interview Mr. Hindawi in jail: "If our work...suggests that we need to revisit him...then I am sure I would be prepared to say...to Iraq that we now see reason to go visit Mr. Hindawi again... I find it useful that Iraq has indicated his availability for that purpose."

On 25 March, US Defense Secretary William Cohen reacted less positively: "I can't comment on whether [the detention of ] this particular individual would be an intelligence loss to the United States." Cohen added that the arrest possibly represented "an attempt on the part of Saddam Hussein to continue to hide and prevent UNSCOM inspectors from receiving information that would help them in their business." One of the few sour notes of the period was sounded with reports in the British media about Iraqi plans to smuggle anthrax into the UK. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, told the House of Commons on 24 March that there were no specific reports of any past or possible attempts to smuggle anthrax, although the Government was taking precautionary measures to forestall any such attempt. However, Iraq reacted angrily. According to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, speaking on 24 March:

"Britain, which has admitted that it had used bombs with depleted uranium during the aggression led by the United States in 1991 against Iraq, tries today to mislead world public opinion by putting out lies and accusing Iraq of having chemical weapons. ... These allegations are yet another proof of frustration that the British Government is suffering from after the agreement signed by the UN Secretary-General with Iraq."

Editor's note: on 10 March, Martin S. Indyk, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, summarised for the House International Relations Committee the extent of international support, political and military, for the US stance during the February crisis:

"One misunderstood aspect of the latest confrontation with Saddam is the degree of international support we received. Despite the impression some might have from the media, the fact is that 23 nations offered to participate in military operations had they been required, while many others offered political support. We should especially express our appreciation for the strong and unequivocal position of the British, who were the first to join us in deploying forces to the Gulf. But they were by no means the only ones. Egypt and the countries in the Gulf were also ready to provide the support we needed when we needed it."

Reports: Acting under Chapter VII, Security Council endorses Memorandum of Understanding signed by Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and Secretary-General, United Nations Press Release SC/6483, 2 March; UN Security Council approves Iraq warning, Reuters, 3 March; Annan - US should follow Security Council, United Press International, 4 March; UN Secretary-General creates post of special envoy to Baghdad, United States Information Service, 5 March; US says no to Russian UNSCOM deputy, United Press International, 6 March; UN sets procedures for visiting Iraq's presidential sites, United States Information Service, 9 March; Surveys of Saddam's compounds in two weeks, Reuters, 9 March; Text - Indyk supports Iraqi inspections accord before Congress, United States Information Service, 10 March; Butler sending special team to Iraq, Associated Press, 13 March; UNSCOM says sensitive site inspections successful, United States Information Service, 13 March; Satisfied UN envoy leaves Iraq, Associated Press, 14 March; Butler - Iraq cooperating so far, United Press International, 19 March; Observers named for Iraqi Presidential site teams, United States Information Service, 19 March; UNSCOM diplomat escorts announced, United Press International, 19 March; Chief UN inspector heads to Iraq, Associated Press, 21 March; Iraq urged to volunteer material, Associated Press, 22 March; UN's Butler sees swift work if Iraq cooperates, Reuters, 22 March; Butler, Aziz meet in Baghdad, United Press International, 23 March; Iraq denies smuggling anthrax to Britain, Reuters, 24 March; 18 UN diplomats arrive in Iraq, Associated Press, 24 March; Top Iraqi germ war scientist arrested, Reuters, 24 March; Iraqi talks leave crisis light years away, Reuters, 24 March; UN told of arrest of Iraqi germ expert, Reuters, 25 March; Butler says he's leaving Baghdad satisfied, Reuters, 25 March; UN team ready to visit Presidential sites, Reuters, 25 March.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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