Gulf Crisis: Bombers were homing in on Baghdad when the order came: `Abort abort'

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The Independent Online
WHEN NIZAR Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador in New York, dropped by the private residence of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, shortly after breakfast last Saturday, he may not have entirely understood the weight of the moment. He was, in one way, just playing postman, delivering a couple of documents from his leader. But he was also doing something else: stopping a superpower in its tracks.

A superpower, moreover, that was fully flexed. Even as Mr Annan settled on his sofa beside the ambassador to read through the documents, the order had been given by President Bill Clinton to launch a massive military strike against Iraq.

With dusk already settling over Baghdad, six B-52 heavy bombers, laden with cruise missiles, had already taken off from a base in Louisiana to join the assault. Royal Air Force Tornadoes were also being prepared for action.

It was precisely what Washington had not wanted to happen. Its script for forcing the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, to back down unconditionally from his 31 October decree rupturing relations with UN weapons was suddenly going mushy again. It was, in fact, being hijacked by New York. Until the weekend, the Americans thought that they could keep Mr Annan and the UN on the sidelines. They got that wrong.

The shift of gravity to New York began with a first, crucial, session of the Security Council on Friday evening. Ahead of that meeting, the picture seemed to favour President Clinton and his closest ally, Tony Blair in London. A rare unity had already been established in the council: everyone agreed that President Saddam had this time overplayed his hand. All the more so, because the Iraqi had lowered the boom on Unscom, the UN body in charge of weapons inspections, at the very moment that the UN had agreed to initiate a "comprehensive review" of the crippling sanctions that have been in place on Iraq since early 1991.

But if the diplomatic stars had been briefly aligned for a military strike, by Friday evening they were already in motion. Mr Annan was back in New York after rushing home from a visit to North Africa. Within hours, he was meeting with France, Russia and China, the three permanent members of the council traditionally sympathetic to Baghdad. The three understood very well that military action was imminent.

That Friday session lasted for four hours. When it ended, day was dawning in Baghdad and some accused Russia's UN envoy of engineering a filibuster, keeping the ambassadors in the council chamber just long enough to delay bombing at least for one more day.

Finally, an agreement was reached that at first sight seemed innocuous. Mr Annan could write the briefest of letters to President Saddam, urging him once more to change course and reminding him of the council's offer of a comprehensive review.

That letter from the world's diplomat-in-chief to Baghdad in the night on Friday changed the course of the crisis. President Saddam trusts Mr Annan more than any other player in the process. He responded with a letter of his own and with that he began his latest climbdown. The letter was composed during a meeting of President Saddam with his cabinet and party lieutenants and was actually written by Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Hamdoon delivered it to the Secretary-General on Saturday morning, even as the American aircraft were taking off from Louisiana.

Mr Annan's public acceptance of President Saddam's climbdown forced President Clinton to stand down his forces. Authorisation to attack had also been given by Mr Blair to 12 RAF Tornado jets stationed in Kuwait; it was simultaneously withdrawn.

But even as Mr Annan declared his own satisfaction with the Iraqi message, Washington and London continued to see problems. While the letter from Mr Aziz offered the immediate return of the UN inspectors to their work in Iraq, a second document laid down conditions for the opening of the promised comprehensive review of sanctions. Within hours the White House had declared the Iraqi offer to be "unacceptable" and riddled with "more holes than Swiss cheese".

On Saturday evening, the Security Council convened again in an atmosphere of exceptional tension. The chance to avert violence was right there. But President Saddam, by including the annex with the letter of capitulation, had once more gone to the edge if not actually jumped over it.

All day Baghdad was saying that the annexe was nothing more than a wish list, but it read like a set of conditions. It said, for instance, that Iraq would expect Mr Annan, or at least a "delegation from the council", to travel to Baghdad to pledge immediate action on the comprehensive review. And it raised the "question of Butler" - an indelicate reminder that President Saddam distrusts Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, and would like him removed.

The council meeting degenerated at once into a "free-for-all", as one United States official described it. The session, arguably one of the most important at the UN in many years, had a bizarre element. Inadvertently, and with France and Russia playing joint ringmaster, the 15 ambassadors found themselves redrafting President Saddam's capitulation for him.

The issue was how to de- couple completely the annexe of conditions from the letter of surrender. Enter Mr Hamdoon, who along with throngs of journalists was nervously waiting outside the council chamber. No less than three times the ambassadors of France and Russia slipped out of the meeting to "consult" with him. What they were actually doing, according to US and British witnesses, was dictating to the Iraqi ambassador what he should write to reassure Washington.

Mr Hamdoon, who was also on his cellular telephone to Mr Aziz in Baghdad, each time obliged. Thrice the Russian envoy, Sergei Lavrov, returned to the chamber to tell council members that he expected new word from Baghdad to clarify its position and - hey presto - three new letters came into the chamber from Mr Hamdoon.

It may have seemed like a pantomime. But those other letters from Mr Hamdoon - coupled with the drone of approaching B-52 bombers and stealth fighters - had the desired effect. Suddenly yesterday, as President Clinton took to the microphones in Washington, the Swiss cheese had no more holes, and the pilots were soon climbing out of their seats.

On the Brink

of Conflict

FRIDAY 13 Nov: 1300: Tony Blair authorises use of British forces; 2030: UN urges Saddam to back down.

SATURDAY 14 Nov: 0938: Six B-52 bombers take off as Clinton agrees strikes; 1000: Blair authorises 12 RAF Tornado bombers to join attack; 1300: Iraqis announce Saddam ready to "respond positively"; 1400: US bombers and British Tornados ordered to stand down; 1515: Letters to Kofi Annan offering resumption of inspections; 1530: Annan declares letter to be positive; 2100: Clinton puts off Asia visit; 2205: US declares Iraqi letter and annex "unacceptable"; 2330: Hamdoon haggles with UN for six hours.

SUNDAY 15 Nov: 1245: Blair says crisis not resolved. UK ready to strike "without warning" if promises not kept; 1600: Clinton accepts Saddam's promise, threat of military action withdrawn.