Iraq: Clinton talks tough as Saddam plays for time

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The Independent Online
A military showdown between the United States and Iraq appeared to be on hold yesterday, as the focus of action shifted to the diplomatic arena of the United Nations. Mary Dejevsky in Washington says there is still no sign that Iraq will back down over its refusal to co-operate with UN inspections.

Conflicting signals were coming from all sides except the Iraqis, as the United Nations Security Council prepared to consider the report of the three special envoys it had dispatched to Iraq last week.

Yesterday morning, the UN defied Iraqi threats and sent a U2 spy plane on a mission over central Iraq. Routine weapons inspections on the ground, however, were suspended for the day even though the head of UNSCOM - the UN commission overseeing the inspections - had earlier said they would proceed.

The aircraft, whose progress was closely monitored by US warplanes from the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, completed its mission without incident. It was said by the Iraqis to be out of range of its anti-aircraft defences, but it provoked a hostile rhetorical response. Mohammad al-Sahaf, the foreign minister, was quoted as saying that Iraq no longer recognised U2 flights as part of the UN monitoring mechanism.

The minister said Iraq would "act towards the planes and other American aircraft violating our skies in a manner that preserves Iraq's sovereignty and security".

Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Prime Minister, subsequently told reporters at the UN that Iraq wanted the U2 missions scrapped. He was speaking after a meeting the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, after arriving on a Concorde flight from Paris.

Mr Aziz insisted that Iraq had complied with UN resolutions and inspectors to the letter, and blamed America for the fact that it was still being accused of violations. Commenting on a report that an inspection team had since uncovered three missiles, he said they had not found engines for the missiles. "Every industrialist and every specialist knows that when you don't have engines and you don't have launchers, you don't have a missile," he said.

"Give us a chance," he pleaded, several times over. Rehearsing the message he said he wanted to convey to the UN Security Council later in the day, he said that Iraq wanted the inspection teams to be reconstituted to make them "genuinely international", a date for the ending of UN sanctions, and for guarantees that outsiders would "not intrude into the security of a member state". These demands, he said, were "legitimate".

Kofi Annan had earlier said that there was still time for Iraq to change its mind and comply with UN inspection requirements.

The same note of patient firmness was struck by the US Vice-President, Al Gore, who took over the baton from President Bill Clinton for the day. Iraq, he said, "will have to comply with the UN resolutions". He went on: "Of course, we hope that discussions underway will result in Saddam [Hussein, the Iraqi President] deciding that he will change his behaviour."

The US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, stressed that the US still ruled out no option to make Iraq comply with UN weapons inspections and lift its threat to expel American members of inspection teams. He called for further sanctions "with teeth, with punitive measures" and called on Iraq to "stop playing games and start behaving like a normal nation".

In Iraq, meanwhile, the media indicated that the use of civilians as human shields would again be a tactic in the event of a new military strike. "Hundreds of Iraqi families," the national news agency said, "have expressed their readiness to stay in the ... presidential palaces in defiance of any American military aggression".

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