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Focus: Iraq crisis-Annan intervention proves decisive

KOFI ANNAN, the United Nations Secretary General, appeared last night to be back playing a pivotal role in efforts to avert military action against Iraq by the US and Britain.

Hopes for a possible diplomatic resolution to the stand-off suddenly flickered into life early yesterday. It happened as Baghdad responded to a letter drafted by Mr Annan over Friday night, following a five-hour marathon meeting of the UN Security Council.

Mr Annan's message, according to UN sources, was short and direct. He had once more urged Saddam Hussein to back down from the brink. He also reminded him of an offer made by the Council just before the crisis erupted for a so-called "Comprehensive Review" of the UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

Until yesterday, it seemed that Mr Annan had been almost entirely sidelined from the process. The hardliners in the Security Council - the United States and Britain - had made it clear they did not want a repeat of last February, when Mr Annan defused the last all-out crisis over UN weapons inspections. The deal he struck, however, turned out to be hollow.

Among the legacies of that process, however, was the appointment by Mr Annan of a special representative to Baghdad. That person is Prakash Shah, who yesterday appeared to be orchestrating the new dialogue. "This is UN diplomacy at work again," said Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector. In September, Mr Ritter resigned from Unscom, the UN body charged with hunting down weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, claiming that the US had been undermining its work.

It remains unclear whether the statements from Baghdad yesterday will be enough to end this stand-off. Even as word emerged that Saddam had agreed to allow Unscom to return to Iraq, some diplomats in New York continued to warn that it might not be enough to satisfy Washington. The US and Britain insisted once more in Friday's Council meeting that Saddam must do nothing less than comply with all UN resolutions.

If bombing is held off and a momentum towards a peaceful solution is allowed to gather, then the exact nature of the comprehensive review will be the pivotal issue. In a statement on Friday night after his long meeting with Security Council ambassadors, Mr Annan reiterated that if Unscom was put back on track, discussions on implementing a review would begin, adding: "I trust the Council will be in a position to lift the sanctions."

Critical to the debate is the exact status of Article 22 of UN resolution 687, the original resolution passed after Iraq's 1991 surrender. It states that it will be allowed to resume oil sales once Unscom has certified that Iraq is rid of all weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam decided to break relations with Unscom last month, precisely because the Council's offer of a review did not make explicit reference to Article 22. It did not because the Americans are uncomfortable with evoking it. Officially, Washington believes that the article cannot be implemented until Iraq complies with all the conditions applied after the Gulf War. Unofficially, however, the US may not want to lift the oil ban until one other thing happens - Saddam is no longer in power.