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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 32, November 1998

Military Strikes Narrowly Averted, Iraq-UN Crisis Remains Unresolved


In mid-November, significant bombing of Iraqi targets by American and British forces was averted at the last minute, with the initial attacks authorised and activated when Iraq rescinded its decisions of 5 August and 31 October to allow no more disarmament inspections by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The crisis was the most serious in Iraq-UN relations since February, when conflict was prevented by a 23 February Memorandum-of-Understanding (MOU) signed by UN Secretary-General Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The terms and conditions of the MOU survived only a few months; early indications following the resolution of the November crisis suggest that the prospect of conflict remains high in the short- to medium-term. Huge US forces, with significant UK support, remain in the region, authorised by their Governments to strike without warning if Iraq reverts to a confrontational stance. The legitimacy of such action is likely to be contested by other nations, most importantly three Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, China, France and Russia. Although these States, together with almost all others, have expressed outrage at Iraq's flouting of UN resolutions, it is clear that the case for a diplomatic response to the next stand-off would still be strongly argued for. Perhaps even greater disquiet is felt about a new emphasis in American and British policy: overt support for the overthrow, violent if necessary, of the Iraqi regime.


30 October - agreement near on comprehensive review

The ironic prelude to the crisis was positive debate in the Security Council about the nature and scope of a comprehensive review of Iraqi compliance with Council resolutions - an initiative of the Secretary-General designed to show Iraq that there was 'light at the end of the tunnel' of sanctions. On 30 October, Council President, UK Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock, issued a statement announcing that "we've had a very constructive discussion this morning and I'm glad to say that we have virtually reached the point of agreement... There is just some checking going on with capitals but I very much hope within the next few hours I shall have a final formal letter to send to the Secretary-General, which will make it clear that the Council, once the terms of resolution 1194 are fulfilled [demanding the reversal of Iraq's 5 August non-cooperation decision], are in a position to proceed with a comprehensive review on an agreed basis." The letter was duly agreed and sent; it made clear that the review would fall into two phases, with an examination of Iraq's compliance with resolutions related to disarmament to be followed by a review of its compliance with all other resolutions. Iraq, however, was unhappy that no assurances would be provided that the review would lead to the lifting of sanctions. Deputy Prime Minister Aziz stated on 1 November: "The comprehensive review is futile. It will not lead to lifting the sanctions."

31 October - Iraq breaks off all cooperative relations with UNSCOM, IAEA.

After a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council and the Ba'ath Party leadership, a Government statement was issued, announcing: "The joint meeting decided to halt all kinds of dealings with the Special Commission and its chief and stop all their activities inside Iraq, including the monitoring, starting from today." Also on 31 October, the Deputy Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, American Charles Duelfer, wrote to inform the Security Council of the drastic details of Iraq's policy henceforth, namely: "to suspend, stop or cease all activities of the Special Commission, including monitoring; the monitoring teams will not be allowed to conduct any activities; members of the Commission's monitoring teams are not requested to depart from Iraq; UNSCOM monitoring cameras and other equipment will remain in place and working, but visiting of those cameras will not be allowed; the IAEA will be allowed to continue its monitoring activities, provided that they are independent of the Commission."

The 31 October decision was promptly and universally condemned. Significantly, France, a strong advocate of a non-military resolution of the February crisis, expressed puzzled disgust. In the words of Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine, speaking on French television (3 November): "We can't see any country that understands what's going on or understands what the Baghdad regime is seeking, especially at a time when the Security Council had adopted a more open position... There is complete agreement in the Security Council - including us, of course, but also the Russians and the Chinese - to tell the Iraqis they're going in completely the wrong direction... And just when the Security Council was moving a bit towards the French position, inexplicably the Iraqi authorities...decide to break off that cooperation..." On 1 November, Russia's Foreign Ministry urged Iraq to "weigh carefully all the negative consequences" of its policy, and argued: "Only the resumption in full volume of constructive cooperation with the UN, including the Special Commission, will provide for the settlement of the situation around Iraq and the return of its people to normal life."

5 November - Security Council condemns Iraqi stance.

Unanimously adopting resolution 1205 (1998), the Council demanded that Iraq "rescind immediately and unconditionally" its 5 August and 31 October decisions" and made clear that Iraq's stance was postponing rather than hastening the end of sanctions: "[The Security Council] [r]eaffirms its intention to act in accordance with the relevant provisions of resolution 687 (1991) on the duration of the prohibitions referred to in that resolution, and notes that by its failure so far to comply with its relevant obligations Iraq has delayed the moment when the Council can do so [review sanctions]". The same day, President Clinton, welcoming the resolution, issued a statement arguing that "[i]t is long past time for Iraq to meet its obligations to the world."

6-13 November - Military build-up and preparations; UNSCOM leaves Iraq as military preparations intensify.

The following week saw a concerted build-up of US and British forces in the Gulf, and no sign of Iraqi willingness to resume cooperative relations. On 11 November, UNSCOM's Chair, Richard Butler of Australia, announced the withdrawal of all his inspectors, and all personnel except a skeleton staff, while the IAEA announced the withdrawal of all of its personnel. The same day, US Defense Secretary Cohen signed a 'deployment order' authorising what appeared to be the final elements necessary for a serious and sustained bombardment. According to a Defense Department summary of the order: "The deployments will start within the next several days. The additional forces ordered to deploy include an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) of 12 F-16CJs, 12 F-15/Ds, 12 F-16s and six B-1s. Besides the AEF, four additional F-16CJs, 12 F-117s, 12 B-52s, two EA-6Bs and 12 Marine Corps F/A-18s have been ordered to the Gulf for a total of 84 combat aircraft. Some 43 support aircraft, including 27 foxed-wing and 18 rotary-wing aircraft will also be deploying. Additional Patriot units and personnel, a light infantry battalion and an additional 3,000 troops will deploy to the Gulf region as well."

In sharp contrast to the February crisis, as tension mounted there was no evidence of sympathy for Iraq's stance or condemnation of the US-led drive to conflict. On 12 November, a statement issued in Doha, Qatar, by the Foreign Ministers of the eight 'Damascus Declaration' States (Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates) read: "The Iraqi Government is held responsible for any consequences that might arise from its refusal to back down from its decision to expel the UN weapon inspectors." The same day, speaking from Morocco, Secretary-General Annan said he was "saddened and burdened" by Iraq's position, especially in light of the promised comprehensive review which "offers Iraq a genuine opportunity."

For its part, Iraq seemed to expect a diplomatic mission by Annan comparable to his February initiative. Iraq's UN Ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, told BBC Radio on 12 November: "We think the best chance here is for Kofi Annan...to offer his offices and address directly with the Iraqi Government the issues that are at hand. I think there is a good chance of achieving something... I think it was indicated to him that we'd like to have him in Baghdad to discuss the matter on that level." It was precisely this scenario that had been clearly ruled out, most unequivocally but not only, by the United States. In the words of State Department spokesperson James Rubin (10 November): "What is not needed, and there is no plan for it, is negotiations with Saddam Hussein. We have no doubt that many Governments are conveying that message." Notwithstanding this solidarity, Russia continued to make clear its unhappiness at the prospect of force being used. On 12 November, UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov told reporters that his Government was "certainly convinced that the use of force is fraught with very serious consequences, not only for the UN's ability to continue to monitor inside Iraq but also for the stability of the region and the Middle East in general."

14-15 November - Iraq rescinds its non-cooperation decision, narrowly avoiding military attack.

On 14 November, a letter from Aziz to Annan conditionally agreed to rescind Iraq's non-cooperation decisions. The letter stated: "On the basis of what was stated in your letter [to Saddam Hussein, 13 November], and in appreciation of the content of the letter of President Boris Yeltsin...and Yevgeny Primakov...and the positive positions conveyed to us by China, France, Brazil and other States, and in order to give a further chance to achieve justice by lifting sanctions...the leadership of Iraq decided to resume working with the Special Commission and the IAEA and to allow them to perform their normal duties..." Appended to the letter, however, was a nine-point summary of the Iraqi position, significantly qualifying this new commitment. Point 8 urged that the Council urgently consider "the question of Butler and the structure of UNSCOM." Point 4 insisted that the comprehensive review be initiated immediately and "carried out within a very short time (seven days, for example) after the resumption by UNSCOM and the IAEA of their normal duties."

The US decided to dismiss the letter and its appendix. In the words of National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (14 November): "What we have got...is a letter, and particularly an annex, that's got more holes than Swiss cheese." On 15 November, Iraq removed all conditions and qualifications from its offer of resumed cooperation. Berger told reporters: "When I came out here last night, we had a four-page letter from Saddam Hussein that a pack of Iraqi lawyers couldn't have figured out. It was convoluted. It was ungrammatical. And it was perfectly, thoroughly unclear. What happened after Prime Minister Blair and the United States said we refuse to accept that, notwithstanding the fact that many were prepared to accept that, is that we received actually two additional letters - very clear, very understandable, saying unconditional compliance, rescission of the decisions of August and October; clear, simple statements."

On 15 November, an unnamed US official explained to reporters the principal rationale behind calling off the air attacks: "We ran the risk of fracturing a coalition against Saddam Hussein. In other words, Saddam Hussein says 'Yes' [to our demands] and 15 minutes later the bombs fall on Baghdad. We have preserved that consensus against Saddam Hussein to test the proposition of whether or not he is serious. If he is not, there's plenty of time to go forward militarily."

15-19 November - UNSCOM returns amid uneasy relief; early problem encountered.

American and British reaction to the reprieve was sceptical and cautionary. President Clinton stated on 16 November: "Governments all over the world today stand united in sharing the conviction that full compliance...is needed from Iraq. The world is watching Saddam Hussein to see if he follows the words he uttered with deeds. Our forces remain strong and ready if he does not." The same day, Prime Minister Blair told the House of Commons: "If there is a next time, I will have no hesitation in ordering the use of force. President Clinton's position is the same. The US and the UK, with far greater international support than ever before, now have Saddam Hussein trapped. If he again obstructs the work of the inspectors, then we strike. No warnings. No wrangling. No negotiations. No last minute letters. The next withdrawal of cooperation and he will be hit."

On 15 November, as UNSCOM and IAEA teams prepared to return to Iraq, Secretary-General Annan sought to stress to Baghdad the precariousness of the new situation. Annan told CNN television: "Some Governments have made clear that next time around there may not even be time for diplomatic appeals." A 15 November statement from Annan, however, sought to accentuate the positive: "This is a victory for all those who have expressed their firm determination that United Nations Security Council resolutions must be respected. It is a victory for diplomacy and resolve." The same day, the Security Council, in a Presidential Statement delivered by Peter Burleigh of the US, expressed its "profound appreciation to the Secretary-General for his efforts," and reiterated its "readiness to proceed with a comprehensive review, once the Secretary-General has confirmed, on the basis of reports from the Special Commission and the IAEA, that Iraq has returned to full cooperation."

Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, told reporters in Malaysia on 15 November that the "decisions taken by the Iraqi leadership and joint efforts of diplomacy...have allowed a way to open to end this worrying crisis." Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was less satisfied, saying (15 November) that his Government was under "no illusions about the intentions of Saddam Hussein." There was, understandably, general if tentative relief in the Middle East. Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, said on 16 November: "I believe this is a very important opening, and the problem, we hope, will be defused."

Weapons inspectors resumed their work on 17 November, checking monitoring equipment and planning inspection schedules. The same day, White House spokesperson Lockhart made clear that the verdict on whether Iraq was honouring its commitments would be made by the UNSCOM Chair: "I think cooperation is one of those things that you know when you see it. And he'll [Butler] know if he's being cooperated with or he'll know if he's not. And if he's not, the we've given some very clear warnings of what the consequences of that are."

The first hitch was soon encountered: Butler requested a document first encountered by his inspectors during an 18 July search of the headquarters of the Iraqi Air Force. According to UNSCOM, the document - which Iraqi officials refused to let the inspectors take away - listed the total number of warheads capable of being loaded with chemical and biological agents during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Editor's note: on 16 November, former IAEA Director General Hans Blix expressed relief that military action had been avoided, and also questioned whether it would have been effective. Speaking in Washington, Blix stated: "I don't quite see what results a bombing would gain. I doubt it would be helpful... Would...bombing destroy these weapons of mass destruction? And would Saddam be more willing to cooperate if we were to bomb them [or] to tell us where the weapons are? ... I do not have the impression that the world wants to occupy Iraq..."

20 November - US announces it will soon be appointing a Special Representative to coordinate the planning of Iraqi opposition groups hoping to overthrow the Hussein regime; Iraq criticises request for documentation.

News of the creation of a post of special representative was given to reporters by an unnamed official, who stressed that the US was not attempting to force the pace of Iraqi opposition efforts: "Our purpose is to get behind them [the opposition groups] and help them pursue their program, and not to dictate that to them... If we go off 'half-cocked,' this could have very negative consequences. A lot of people could die for no good effect... [We have] a special responsibility to do it right..."

Referring to the documentation saga, Saeed Hasan, Iraq's Deputy Ambassador to the UN, told reporters: What they want is full submission, and they will never, never get it. Full cooperation is different than full submission."

21 November - a team of UNSCOM missile experts carries out a surprise inspection without incident.

The inspection, according to Major-General Hussam Amin, head of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate, was "a surprise visit" by "a missile team...to one installation to check its monthly production records. ... The Iraqi side offered the required facilities to the work of the team..."

22 November - Iraq again insists it is not withholding any relevant documentation.

According to Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf: "Anything relevant to the work of disarmament, we had already handed over." The Minister added that, since 1991, a grand total of 2,188,020 pages of documentation had been provided to UNSCOM. Speaking even more bluntly, Aziz claimed: "Butler has asked for a series of alleged documents...that do not exist. It is quite provocative if you want to dig in the whole archives of the Government of Iraq, which might take decades."

23 November - Iraq submits a third, 18-page letter to the Security Council.

The third letter, written by Aziz and 18 pages in length, was delivered to the President of the Security Council by Ambassador Hamdoon, who told reporters that its purpose was to "make clear to the Council that Iraq is in no way showing any signs of non-cooperation," and was "indicative of our frustration with the effort of the work of UNSCOM from disarmament to...opening Iraqi archives." The letter stated: "Given the gulf between the respective positions and the different approaches adopted, we concluded that the requests of the Executive Chairman [for documentation] are impossible to satisfy." Two similar letters were also submitted to the Council President on 20-21 November.

By 23 November, it was becoming clear that the documentation issue alone would not trigger a military attack. Butler told CNN television that "talk about [Iraq's] shortfall in the last few days on documents leading automatically to some kind of enforcement is a bit exaggerated." White House spokesperson P. J. Crowley also stressed: "This is a broader process than documents. We will judge Iraq on its cooperation on a number of levels. We will watch closely as UNSCOM continues to do its work."

24 November - Security Council approves extension of oil-for-food programme; Russia criticises emphasis on toppling Iraqi regime.

Under the terms of the unanimously adopted resolution 1210 (1998), the Council agreed to a 180-day extension of the 'oil-for-food' emergency humanitarian relief arrangements first set out in resolution 986 (1995). The resolution stipulates that Iraq is to be allowed to produce a maximum of $5.256 billion of oil in the extension period, commencing 26 November. Currently, Iraq is incapable of that level of production. Consequently, in the words of a UN press release, the Council also "decided to allow States to export oil production equipment so that Iraq could meet that sum. According to resolution 1175 (1998), up to $300 million may be used to meet expenses related to the export of such equipment." Speaking after the adoption of resolution 1210, Ambassador Burleigh told reporters: "This is a huge program. It authorises $5,200 million of oil exports every six months. Because of the price of oil and the state of the Iraqi oil industry that level hasn't been reached - something around $3 billion or so has been reached."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Vladimir Rakhmanin stressed to reporters the strength of his Government's difference of opinion with the US and others of the merits of seeking to overthrow Saddam Hussein: "Unfortunately, we have to state that calls have been made in some world capitals, including London, for changing the existing regime in Iraq by force. The questions pertaining to structure can only be solved by the people of Iraq. We are convinced that it is important to avoid any moves or statements that could impede the efforts at implementing international decisions, including work on Iraq's mass destruction weapon programmes. ... We would like to reaffirm that we come out for an early settlement of the problem of Iraq on the basis of compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions. These resolutions speak of the need to respect the sovereignty and political independence of Iraq."

Reports: Text - UNSC President statement on resolutions concerning Iraq, United States Information Service, 30 October; UN nears Iraq compliance agreement, Associated Press, 31 October; Iraq halts dealings with inspectors, Associated Press, 31 October; Iraq says will not work with UN inspectors, Reuters, 31 October; Russia condemns Iraq for UN ban, Associated Press, 1 November; Aziz says Iraq will not bow to threats, Reuters, 1 November; Text - letter re. Iraq's suspension of cooperation with UNSCOM, United States Information Service, 2 November; France calls Iraqi arms move mystifying and wrong, Reuters, 4 November; Security Council condemns Iraq's decision to cease cooperation with UNSCOM, United Nations Press Release SC/6519, 5 November; Text - Clinton statement on Iraq and inspectors late November 5, United States Information Service, 6 November; UNSCOM orders all arms staff out of Iraq, Reuters, 11 November; Secretary-General strongly urges President Hussein and Iraqi Government to resume immediate cooperation with UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors, United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6790, 11 November; Iraq says UN's Annan could negotiate solution, Reuters, 12 November; Arab leaders hold Iraq responsible, Associated Press, 12 November; Annan, UNSC urge Iraq to resume cooperation with UNSCOM, United States Information Service, 12 November; Text - Cohen signs order to increase forces in Gulf November 11, United States Information Service, 12 November; UN Council backs Annan call for Iraq to cooperate, Reuters, 12 November; Iraq's objective is to end the suffering of its people under sanctions, Aziz tells UN chief, Observer, 15 November; Secretary-General says hope for satisfactory diplomatic solution to present crisis appears to have been achieved, United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6796, 15 November; Security Council notes agreement of Iraq to rescind earlier decisions, allow resumption of UNSCOM and IAEA activities, United Nations Press Release SC/6596, 15 November; Iraq declares victory in US dispute, Associated Press, 15 November; Transcript - Berger press briefing on Iraq, November 14, United States Information Service, 15 November; Ex-IAEA head Blix questions wisdom of bombing Iraq, Reuters, 16 November; Arab States relieved, Israel remains wary, Washington Post, 16 November; Statement by the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, to the House of Commons, London, 16 November 1998, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office Daily Bulletin, 16 November; Excerpt - Clinton 11/16/98 statement on Iraq, United States Information Service, 16 November; Clinton aborts second attack on Iraq, Reuters, 16 November; US looks to UN on Iraq compliance, Associated Press, 17 November; Weapon inspectors arrive in Iraq, Associated Press, 17 November; Iraq puts conditions on UN request, Associated Press, 20 November; Albright to name Special representative to Iraqi opposition, United States Information Service, 20 November; UN missile team makes 'surprise' Iraq visit, Reuters, 22 November; Iraq says it has no new documents, Associated Press, 22 November; Iraq submits third explanation on document access, United States Information Service, 23 November; Security Council extends humanitarian assistance programme to Iraq - 'oil-for-food' - for 180 days beginning on 26 November, United Nations Press Release SC/6600, 24 November; UN Security Council renews Iraqi oil-for-food program, United States Information Service, 24 November; Russia criticises call to force out Saddam, Reuters, 25 November.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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