Iraq fears Butler will keep sanctions

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IN WHAT may be the first step towards a renewed confrontation between Iraq and the UN, Richard Butler, head of the UN Special Committee monitoring the elimination of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, returned to Baghdad yesterday for meetings with Iraqi leaders.

Only if Mr Butler, former Australian ambassador to the UN, certifies that Iraq no longer has such weapons, or the means to deliver them, will the UN lift sanctions. These have crippled the Iraqi infrastructure since they were imposed eight years ago. A study by Unicef last year showed that 31 per cent of infants in Iraq suffer from malnutrition today compared to none in 1990.

Iraqis are not optimistic that Mr Butler, who is to have three days of meetings with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, is anywhere near certifying that Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction. He produces his next six-monthly report on Iraqi compliance in October, the moment when a new crisis is likely to explode.

Mr Butler's visit - termed "decisive" by Iraq - has been preceded by skirmishes between weapons monitors and Iraq.

Last month Iraq refused to give the investigators a document itemising the shells and bombs used in its war with Iran in 1980-88. This may be to check if Iraq used nerve gas as well as Sarin and Tabu.

There is no doubt that Iraqi leaders are frustrated but they have limited options. President Saddam Hussein portrayed the last confrontation with the UN in February as a victory. It ended with him signing an agreement with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, permitting his palaces to be searched. The UN backed away from renewing the Gulf war. It was also dismayed to find it was largely isolated in the Arab world, even Saudi Arabia refusing to allow its territory to be used for attacks on Iraq.

The Iraqi diplomatic successes in February have produced few dividends. Every- thing apart from imported food and medicine has to go through the UN sanctions and contracts committees in New York. The committees exercise tight control of the Iraqi economy.

The UN oil-for-food plan, under which Iraq can export some oil to pay for essential supplies, has had limited impact. This is because Iraqi power stations, water and sewage plants have not been repaired for eight years.

In Baghdad there are three to six hours of power cuts a day. In the countryside the electricity goes off for 20 hours and sometimes all day. This means pressure is not maintained in the water pipes which become contaminated by sewage. In many areas where there is no piped water the intense heat of the Mesopotamian summer leads people to drink straight from the heavily polluted rivers.The subsequent gastro-enteritis is often fatal for small children.

Iraqis believe their government probably does have some weapons of mass destruction but do not think this is why the US and Britain want to maintain sanctions. "India and Pakistan explode nuclear weapons and nothing happens to them," said one middle class Iraqi, who did not want to give his name. "How can we prove we don't have some of these weapons?"

Ordinary Iraqis express bitterness that they and not the Iraqi government, are being punished.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN Secretary General, said in 1995 that the international community had failed to confront "the ethical question of whether suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders, whose behaviour is unlikely to be affected by the plight of their subjects".