Baghdad ready to climb down: Iraq hints at UN compromise in face of threatened military action

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The Independent Online
IRAQI resistance to the international community appeared to crumble last night as the US, Britain and France prepared to issue a 72-hour ultimatum of military action unless Baghdad allowed United Nations arms inspectors unrestricted access to government buildings.

Rolf Ekeus, the head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, notified the Security Council that he expected to hear a 'positive' response from Baghdad today that would allow the inspectors to enter the disputed Ministry of Agriculture building.

'He sounded optimistic,' the President of the Council, Jose Jesus of Cape Verde, said. Iraq's ambassador, Abdul Amir al-Anbari, was also optimistic. Signalling that Iraq was taking the military threats seriously, he said his country would give a 'definitive reply' today and he felt the 'crisis will be solved in a very constructive way'. He said that Iraq would allow the UN to use helicopters to monitor the Ministry of Agriculture building, where Iraqi military archives are believed to be held.

The apparent Iraqi climbdown came after President George Bush cancelled his weekend travel plans and returned to Washington for urgent consultations with political and military advisers. At the same time diplomatic sources at the UN said Britain, France and the US were preparing to issue a 72-hour ultimatum ordering Iraq to comply with the Gulf war ceasefire terms.

Mr Bush, who had left the capital for a campaigning tour of two states in the Midwest, will this morning meet General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, and other top-level administration and military advisers.

Officials confirmed in Washington that Mr Bush was in favour of the US, Britain and France issuing an ultimatum together, under some form of UN authority, which would threaten imminent military action unless Iraq backed down from its refusal to allow UN inspectors to search the Agricultural Ministry in Baghdad for evidence of the development of weapons of mass destruction.

The President's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, spoke more generally, however, of 'across-the-board defiance' by Saddam Hussein of UN resolutions arising from the Gulf war. He included reports of renewed Iraqi bombing of Shia communities in southern Iraq.

Although Mr Fitzwater would not say how imminent an ultimatum might be, he hinted strongly that it could come this weekend. Confirming that the risk of military confrontation was now higher than at any time since the war, he told journalists: 'This is the most serious situation we have faced in terms of edging up on the deadline.'

His words were echoed by Mr Cheney, who warned at a news conference of the consequences of Iraqi intransigence: 'Clearly we have the capacity to resume military operations against Iraq at the sole decision of the President . . . I am confident we have the military capacity to carry out any orders we're given. In the end, I do not believe Saddam Hussein has any choice but to comply with the United Nations' resolutions.'

This is about the sixth time since the war ended in March last year that the Western allies have seemed on the brink of further military action against Baghdad. On past occasions, President Saddam has retreated far enough to avoid final confrontation, and this appeared to be happening again last night.

Any consideration by Mr Bush of his options is bound to be coloured by his dismal political situation at home. It might be tempting to order military strikes against Baghdad both to attract public attention away from his Democrat opponent, Bill Clinton, and again to demonstrate his ability to lead in crisis. There are clear risks to such a course, however. It is not clear how much public appetite would exist a second time round for military entanglement with Iraq.

Turkey said yesterday that it would not allow bombing missions from bases on its soil. The US, however, still has fighter-bombers on station in Saudi Arabia and, in any aerial campaign, could make heavy use of the aircraft carrier Independence, already in Gulf waters.

However, the 65 UN personnel - experts in aerial surveillance and chemical warfare, as well as support staff - who have remained in Baghdad would be potential hostages.