UN envoys call on Saddam not to expel US inspectors

 

Three UN envoys sought yesterday to convince Iraq to back down on its threat to expel US arms inspectors as diplomacy took centre-stage in the week-old crisis. On a jarring note after both Baghdad and the UN made concessions to ease tensions, Iraqi authorities again turned back three US inspectors with the UN Special Commission (Unscom) for disarming Iraq.

But Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, head of a UN team of three diplomats, said "the atmosphere was very good" in a first round of talks with the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tareq Aziz.

He delivered a message from the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, for President Saddam Hussein, whose decision on October 29th to bar US experts working with Unscom created the crisis between Baghdad and the UN Security Council.

A second meeting started later yesterday, following a break of several hours, the official news agency INA said.

Mr Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, was accompanied by Sweden's Mr Jan Eliasson, a former under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, and Mr Emilio Cardenas of Argentina.

The Foreign Minister, Mr Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf, the Oil Minister, Mr Amer Mohammad Rashid, and Iraq's UN ambassador, Mr Nizar Hamdoon, also took part in the talks, along with the UN co-ordinator of the oil-for-food programme, Mr Denis Halliday.

In a rare event for Iraq, photographers and cameramen were allowed in at the opening of the talks.

France, meanwhile, appealed to Iraq "to take advantage of the mission to reconsider" the ban on US inspectors and co-operate with Unscom.

Iraq decided to postpone its threat to expel the seven US nationals left in Baghdad for Unscom, timed for 10 p.m. (Irish time) yesterday, until after the UN diplomats report back to the Security Council.

In a reciprocal move on Tuesday to put the focus on diplomacy, Unscom decided at the request of Mr Annan to call off over-flights by a US spy plane following an Iraqi threat to shoot it down.

In Washington the White House spokesman, Mr Michael McCurry, said the cancelling of flights set for yesterday and tomorrow "in no way affects our determination to continue with the enforcement of the relevant Security Council resolutions."

Despite the concessions, the UN diplomats have stressed their mandate is not to negotiate while the aim on the Iraqi side was to seek a "short and reasonable" time limit for a lifting of economic sanctions.

President Saddam does not have the right to decide who will take part in UN weapons inspections, Washington's UN ambassador, Mr Bill Richardson, said yesterday. "The Iraqis don't have the right to pick and choose the members of the team," Mr Richardson said at a committee hearing of the US House of Representatives.

A UN oil embargo in force since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until Unscom certifies that Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as well as long-range missiles have been eliminated.

Mr Aziz is to travel to New York to argue Iraq's case. He wants to be present when the 15member Security Council discusses a report from the envoys on Monday, Mr Annan said.