Mutual distrust is at the heart of the simmering dispute over documents
The row over documents demanded by UN weapons inspectors is keeping the Iraq crisis warm, but for now Washington is firing words, not missiles at Baghdad.
"It's still touch and go, very dicey," one senior Asian diplomat said.
The United States has warned it remains ready to strike if Iraq fails to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors, but the latest dispute on documents sought by their leader, Mr Richard Butler, has not yet brought the crisis to boiling point.
The US National Security adviser, Mr Sandy Berger, said yesterday that Washington was waiting for Iraq's last word on the documents.
"Mr Butler has said that their response is not satisfactory. He's gone back to them and asked for further information and we hope and expect to get that," Mr Berger said.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tariq Aziz, at the weekend accused Mr Butler of trying to give the United States an excuse to unleash its assault or of seeking to undermine a promised Security Council review of Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions.
"He [Mr Butler] is either creating a superficial pretext to justify the American aggression or he is trying to confuse and undermine the comprehensive review," he said.
Despite the verbal clashes, monitors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with scrapping Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been back at work for the past five days without complaining publicly of any Iraqi obstruction.
The UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan's, special envoy, Mr Prakash Shah, is due back in Baghdad today in advance of the expected arrival of UNSCOM experts who may spring surprise inspections.
Iraq narrowly avoided US-led air attacks the weekend before last by rescinding its ban on co-operation with UNSCOM. That enabled UNSCOM staff, UN aid workers and diplomats who had been evacuated to return to Baghdad.
Mr Butler then demanded documents ranging from details of chemical and biological agents Iraq used in its 1980-88 war with Iran to personal diaries of Iraqi officers.
Iraq has replied with a series of objections, saying some of the documents are irrelevant to UNSCOM's mandate, some do not exist and others have been destroyed or lost.
"It seems ridiculous on the face of it, haggling over documents which for Iraq fall in the ambit of national security. But Mr Butler is pressing the advantage he has gained recently and seeking unfettered access," the diplomat said.
"This controversy and others likely to follow are symptomatic of the deep distrust between the two sides."
The United States, backed by Britain, had assembled formidable forces in the Gulf before President
Clinton called off a planned attack on Iraq at the 11th hour. Those forces remain poised, but the United States could forfeit international support if it orders a strike before Iraq's agreement to co-operate with UNSCOM has been fully tested.
Baghdad has acknowledged putting itself on the wrong side of world opinion by blocking the inspectors' work. But it argues that the United States and Britain have now tipped their hand and violated the UN Charter by openly calling for President Saddam Hussein's overthrow and stepping up support for Iraqi opposition groups.
Three permanent council members, China, France and Russia, want the review to credit Iraq for disarmament work already accomplished, to switch the focus to long-term monitoring of its weapons capabilities, and to ease the sanctions.
"This would give Iraq an incentive for co-operation with UNSCOM and is a logical approach to a ticklish issue," said the diplomat. "But Washington says it must be all or nothing." The US says Iraq must meet all disarmament requirements as well as the demands of UN resolutions on issues such as human rights and missing Kuwaitis before any lifting of sanctions.
"This carries the seeds of more conflict," the diplomat said. "Iraqis conclude that the United States is hell-bent on keeping sanctions and that its objective is Saddam's demise."