Iraq Crisis: How Kofi made peace in Baghdad

Click to follow
THE BUSINESS of the United Nations can be cripplingly boring. Not so last weekend when Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, left New York on his peace mission to Baghdad. It was 72 hours of sheer diplomatic drama for him, for his entourage of nine officials and, indeed, for the whole world.

This was no phoney exercise. Even as his French government plane landed in Baghdad late on the Friday afternoon, Mr Annan had no idea what to expect. Echoing in his ears were the words of one western leader who hours earlier had told him he was sure President Clinton was poised to bomb.

As one of his party told us last week: "We didn't know if Iraq wanted to be bombed as a way of getting rid of the weapons inspectors. Nor did we know if the Americans were determined to bomb anyway and we were being sent for cosmetic purposes".

The negotiating sequence was thus: beginning Friday night and through Saturday, Mr Annan had serial meetings with the Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz. Through them all one deal-breaker lingered - Baghad's demand that UN inspections of presidential complexes last no more than 60 days. Only in talks with Saddam himself at lunchtime on Sunday was that issue resolved.

That critical session happened in the Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad itself. But when the cars arrived at the government guesthouse, where the UN team was being accommodated, to pick up Annan and three of his aides just before noon, none of them had any clue where they would be going. "For all anyone knew they were going to the airport and would be whisked off on a helicopter somewhere," the Annan aide related.

Most of Annan's sessions with Aziz were one-on-one. Disappointed, the team passed hours reading each others' magazines - an issue of the Economist went round multiple times - and snoozing. There was only one full session, on Saturday evening. Mr Aziz took out a long document and, with sheepish apology, said he had to read it out for the record. It was a litany of Iraqi grievances about UN behaviour. The reading lasted an hour and a half and some on the UN side fell asleep.

Other anecdotes about the mission are as wonderful as they are trivial, like Mr Annan being offered only orange juice and cigars by Saddam and Aziz during all of the talks. It was only when the UN team were about to depart for home on Monday morning, that they were treated to a meal: a brunch at one of the presidential complexes that were at the root of the negotiations in the first place.

Most tantalising is the scare suffered by legal adviser, Hans Corell. Very late on Sunday, when Annan and Saddam had done the deed, Mr Corell was asked to return to the Foreign Ministry to tidy up the text with the Iraqis for signature early Monday. When that was completed, he found that the car that was meant to take him back to the guesthouse had vanished.

Finally, one of the Iraqi delegation agreed to surrender his car and driver. They were just halfway across town, when it broke down. "Hans said he was clutching his briefcase so tight, his knuckles went white," the UN source said. In the case, in fact, was the only copy of the agreement. At 12.15am, Mr Corell and the driver he had never met before walked a mile and a half through the Baghdad night to the guesthouse.

How heavy was America's hand in the mission? It did have the administration's blessing. Indeed, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, secretly flew to New York two Sundays ago for a meeting with Mr Annan where she laid down the limits of what Washington could buy from a trip to Baghdad mission. The pre-eminent role of the UN special commission, UNSCOM, in conducting weapons inspections, for instance, would have to be preserved.

But it was not a trip on behalf of Washington. Annan had direct help from plenty of other quarters. President Jacques Chirac of France advised on how to approach Saddam psychologically: construct a deal, he said, that would convince Saddam he had won. Russia's envoy, Victor Posavalyuk,play- ed a vital role in persuading Iraq to drop its demand for the 60-day limit.

Ms Albright was the first to contact Mr Annan in Baghdad, via satellite phone, when it became certain an agreement would stick. She asked him what it was. The President, she said, needed to know. But he demurred. He would brief America when he was in a position to tell all the 15 members of the Security Council.

Some on Capitol Hill are apoplectic, accusing Mr Annan of selling the store. If they mean that he betrayed the President, they would be wrong. The deal is within the lines drawn by Ms Albright. But if they sense that his view of how Saddam should be dealt with is distant from their own, they are right.

The Secretary-General does not believe that the sanctions regime against Iraq can go on for ever. He senses that patience is waning almost everywhere outside Washington and London. Thus, while he made a deal to avert war, he made one that he himself believes in, including those parts pledging respect for Iraq and looking forward to the end of sanctions.

"Baghdad," he told colleagues aboard his plane last weekend, "is not Berlin. We are not an occupying force".