UN Secretary General cautions against rigid stance on Saddam


The UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan, yesterday appealed for "courage" and "wisdom" on Iraq as he became the focal point of a diplomatic flurry to avert a US military onslaught against President Saddam Hussein.

Mr Annan, deeply concerned about air strikes, said that he did not believe the hour for diplomacy was past but called on all sides to drop "purist or fundamentalist positions", otherwise "we will not find a solution". Using language that will infuriate the US and Britain, Mr Annan signalled that he was prepared to be flexible on the interpretation of resolutions demanding access for UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors seeking to identify and eliminate Iraq's biological and chemical weapons.

Mr Annan said Iraq's leaders "had painted themselves in a corner and we need to work with them to get them to back down, but I think we should not insist on humiliating them". The British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, immediately insisted there was no question of watering down UN resolutions. "If the Security Council backs off on this occasion, it will have no credibility the next time," he warned.

Mr Annan is currently fine-tuning a plan crafted by Russia and the Arab League that would allow UN access to 68 sites where material for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction may be stored. The plan calls for Mr Annan to appoint someone to lead a new committee to inspect eight presidential compounds with Mr Richard Butler, an Australian diplomat and head of UNSCOM, demoted to vice chairman. Mr Butler has come under fire from China, France and Russia for inflaming relations between Baghdad and the UN with his confrontational style.

The US and Britain are unimpressed with the proposals, but a London Foreign Office source said last night that comments on them have been passed to Russia and the Arab League.

Britain, meanwhile, is hoping to submit a new resolution to the Security Council by the end of this week. This text, co-sponsored by Japan, would clear the way for military action. Baghdad last night denied that Mr Saddam had sent a message to Israel via Moscow on Sunday stating that he would not launch a military attack against the Jewish state. Earlier a Western diplomat in the Jordanian capital of Amman had reported such a message and said: "The Iraqi president said in his message that he had neither the ability nor the intention of hitting Israel."

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said that Russia's ambassador to Israel, Mr Mikhail Bogdanov, met the Knesset speaker, Mr Dan Tichon, on Monday. Mr Tichon said afterwards that Mr Bogdanov had said "the message from Iraq to the Russians was that Israel won't be hurt in the crisis".

Russia yesterday issued new warnings against the use of military strikes. In Moscow a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Gennady Tarasov, said: "We wonder what may be the results of applying massive fire power against arsenals of weapons of mass destruction."

In Rome, President Yeltsin and the Italian Prime Minister, Mr Romano Prodi said they would send a joint message to Baghdad appealling to Mr Saddam to avoid an "unpriedictable conflagration". --(Guardian Service, Reuters)

An aircraft chartered to take a group of Russian deputies led by the ultra-nationalist, Mr Vladimr Zhirinovsky, and journalists to Iraq remained grounded in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, yesterday while UN officials decided whether to give it flight authorisation. A UN spokesman in New York said the issue was "still pending in the sanctions committee" which monitors the flight blockade on Iraq. --(AFP)

Turkish troops backed by armoured vehicles and air power fought Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains of northern Iraq yesterday, Turkish military officials and witnesses said.