Midnight tonight, 5 November, was the original deadline set by Iraq for US weapons inspectors to leave the country. But yesterday Baghdad agreed to a request from the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to create a better atmosphere for the UN delegation's talks.
The suspension of the deadline implies that Iraq's threat to shoot down U2 spy planes deployed by the UN and piloted by Americans - a threat delivered to the UN over the weekend and designed to back up the expulsion threat - has also been suspended.
A grave-looking President Bill Clinton said he welcomed Iraq's decision, but spelt out that Iraq "must restore respect and opportunity" for UN weapons inspection teams - the issue at the heart of the crisis. He confirmed that the US was waiting for the outcome of the UN mission to Baghdad before taking any further action. "We must do everything to solve this diplomatically and reserve judgement," he told reporters at the White House.
The UN mission, led by Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, is expected to arrive in Baghdad today. Both US and UN officials stress that its purpose is not to negotiate, but to press home to Iraq the need for compliance with UN resolutions.
The delegation is also expected to underline that no country can pick and choose which country's nationals serve in UN inspection teams. This cardinal rule of UN operations is supported by all members of the Security Council, including those like France and Russia which opposed a recent US move to toughen UN sanctions against Iraq. According to UN officials yesterday, Iraq's attempt to bar US nationals is a challenge to the authority of the UN itself, and cannot be allowed to succeed.
Washington is believed to want to preserve the unanimity of the Security Council on this issue as long as possible. Earlier this week, the US made clear that it supported the dispatch of the UN mission and, while not ruling out any option, would wait on the outcome before taking any action of its own.
Officials have said that they believe Washington's attempt to toughen UN sanctions against Iraq, while understandable given the obstruction of UN weapons inspectors in the past two months, was "mistimed" and "a tactical mistake". With France and Russia among those opposing tougher sanctions, the move opened a breach in the UN Security Council that the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was quick to exploit by trying to expel US inspectors.
US officials said yesterday that the postponement of the expulsion deadline amounted to a recognition by Iraq that it had gone too far. They stressed, however, that any solution would entail a permanent lifting of the threat to America.
If Baghdad's main goal in threatening US inspectors is not - as some have speculated - to protect secret weapons sites, but to hasten the end of UN sanctions, then Saddam Hussein might countenance a tactical retreat on the composition of UN weapons teams. For this to happen, however, the three-man UN mission might have to set a date for the end of sanctions. Any date, however, would have to be conditional on Iraq's full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions.Reuse content