Iraq crisis: Divided UN looks again to its chief

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KOFI ANNAN, the United Nations Secretary-General, is expected to play the central role in attempting to end the deadlock gripping the UN Security Council after last week's 70-hour war on Iraq by the United States and Britain and find a new approach towards ending sanctions imposed on Baghdad.

As the council resumed consultations on policy on Iraq yesterday with little sign that the divisions within it would easily be bridged, Russia was preparing to table a draft statement that would invite Mr Annan to take the initiative to try to find a way through the policy impasse. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian ambassador to the UN, was to meet Mr Annan last night to make a similar appeal for help.

Diplomats in New York warned, however, that it might be several weeks before a new consensus on Iraq could be re-established in the badly fractured council. While there is still unity among members that President Saddam Hussein must be preventing from retaining or developing weapons of mass destruction, there are sharply diverging views on how that can be achieved.

Britain and the United States are lonely in the council in insisting that the dual approach towards Iraq of the last eight years remains valid. This would imply the return of Unscom, the UN special commission, and its weapons inspectors to Iraq and the maintenance of full economic sanctions until Iraq finally demonstrates that it is free of all the proscribed weaponry. "We are not the most popular people here," one British source noted.

Most vexing is the future of Unscom and its chairman, Richard Butler. Since the bombing, Iraq has repeatedly denounced Unscom and its chief and said it will no longer accept both the intrusions of its inspectors and the continuing sanctions. "Iraq cannot tolerate the embargo and Unscom," Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, said on Monday.

Mr Butler, a former Australian UN ambassador, has come under fierce criticism from China and Russia. Both are pressing for his dismissal on the basis that the report he submitted last week, which triggered the strikes, unfairly characterised Iraqi work with inspectors. Britain and the US, however, have come to his support. Thomas Pickering, the US under-secretary of state, visited Mr Annan in New York to dissuade him from recommending changes to Unscom or the removal of Mr Butler.

The Secretary-General, who saw last week's bombing campaign as a defeat for him personally and for his efforts to forestall violence in the Gulf, has been holding talks with a stream of diplomats from council member governments. He has also created a task force of advisers to consider new approaches to the Iraq conundrum. Leading the group is his under-secretary- general for arms control, Jayantha Dhanapala.

Aides to Mr Annan denied, however, that he was poised to interject proposals of his own in the council. "He is meeting with all sides and is open to all shades of opinion to make sure that if there is any way of moving forward to an agreement he would able to help," one senior official remarked. "Different governments are peddling various formulas and we are listening very attentively".

Options may include dismantling Unscom and spinning of its functions to various bodies, such as the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. France, meanwhile, has suggested a shift from intrusive weapons inspections to long-term monitoring in Iraq and a relaxing of the sanctions regime to allow Iraq to import, under supervision, all the food and medicine it needs.

Yesterday, Mr Butler dismissed calls for his resignation as a "red herring". He added: "I ask you this: is it about me or a personality, or is it about substance? The substance is the disarmament of Iraq. No one in the Security Council is saying anything else. They have various views on how to do that."