Iraq crisis: Annan's Baghdad visit carries hopes of peaceful solution

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The Independent Online
THE chances of a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis last night hung by the thread of a visit to Baghdad by the United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan - expected to take place tomorrow or Friday - after it received the go-ahead from the five permanent Security Council members.

As yet more United States weaponry moved to the Gulf, President Jacques Chirac of France warned the visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, in Paris that "time was running out" for a diplomatic solution, and that his country faced "extremely serious risks" if it continued to bar its so-called "presidential sites" from inspection by Unscom experts.

But there were signs that Iraq might just be edging towards a climbdown, and the outlines of a diplomatic solution that might be acceptable even to Britain and the US, the two hawks on the Security Council, were beginning to emerge.

This could be in the form of an "Unscom-plus", providing unfettered access for a UN inspectors team accompanied by diplomats or other officials.

Elaboration of a proposal along these lines was the prime task of a further session in New York last night between Mr Annan and representatives of the "P-5".

British officials hinted that a deal was "very close". But whether the arrangement would satisfy Washington's insistence on the "integrity of the Unscom" mission remained to be seen. Unscom, said the US Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, "must be the key; it must run everything".

In a televised address broadcast live from the Pentagon, President Bill Clinton was as resolute as ever. In his toughest warning yet to President Saddam Hussein, he declared his determination "to do the right thing" for future generations in the event of diplomacy, his preferred option "by far", failing to deliver a solution.

"If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that he can act with impunity, even in the face of a clear message from the United Nations Security Council and clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction," the President said.

He also issued a veiled warning to Mr Annan. "To be a genuine solution, and not simply one that glosses over the remaining problem, a diplomatic solution must include or meet a clear, immutable, reasonable, simple standard.

"Iraq must agree and soon, to free, full unfettered access to these sites anywhere in the country," the President said, noting that those were the terms President Saddam agreed with the UN at the end of the Gulf war. "If he accepts them, force will not be necessary.

"If he refuses to, or continues to evade his obligations through more tactics of delay and deception, he and he alone will be to blame for the consequences."

Now all eyes are on Mr Annan. He will announce today whether he will go to Baghdad, as everyone (except perhaps the Americans) seems to wish.