Albright opts for the `wisest course'

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THE US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, went before Congress for the second day running yesterday to try to subdue vocal opposition to the UN Secretary-General's agreement with Iraq. The agreement is being condemned as a sell-out by a forceful coalition made up of Republicans congressmen, former foreign policy practitioners, academics and former UN arms inspectors.

The opposition has been led in Congress by the Republican majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, who questioned President Bill Clinton's apparent trust in Kofi Annan, and condemned the agreement as a victory for the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

"I cannot understand why the Clinton Administration would place trust in someone devoted to building a `human relationship' with a mass murderer," he said.

"After years of denying that Saddam Hussein had any right to determine the scope of inspections or the make-up of inspection teams this agreement codifies his ability to do both."

Mrs Albright made three appearances in 24 hours to defend the agreement. On Wednesday, she prefaced her congressional testimony on Nato expansion with a statement on the Iraq agreement. Later in the afternoon, after Mr Lott's outburst, she held a press conference to contest his remarks:

"Some in Congress, say `reject it'. We believe the wisest course is to test it," she said. Now was not the time to bash the United Nations and she insisted: "We retain the authority, the responsibility, the means and the will to use military force if that is required."

Yesterday she made a further appearance in Congress to press her case. Additional support came from New York, where the arms inspection chief, Richard Butler, called a press conference to argue that the inspection regime had been strengthened by the addition of another layer of diplomatic authority.

Among the most influential lobbyists in Washington, however, was a former UN weapons inspector, David Kay, whose experience appears to give him a unique authority to speak out.

Combining a sense of personal mission to expose what he believes is Iraq's continuing weapons programme, and a resentment of Mr Annan's references to "cowboy" behaviour by some inspection teams, Mr Kay has run the gamut of television talk shows denigrate the deal.

It was unclear, however, what real impact could be exerted by opponents of the agreement. US public opinion was increasingly opposed to a new Gulf War and, according to recent polls, is 60 per cent in favour of the agreement. As a UN deal, the terms do not require Congressional approval. Even some opponents, like former Under-Secretary of State, Paul Wolfowitz, say: "a bad agreement is better than a bad war."