Iraq: Showdown put on hold as talks get under way

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A showdown in the Middle East was defused a little yesterday after the US said it would seek tougher sanctions on Iraq before resorting to military action. Yet, as Mary Dejevsky reports, statements from senior officials on both sides seemed to leave little room for compromise.

The United Nations building was the scene of frenzied activity yesterday as the UN Secretary General, the Iraqi deputy prime minister and the American ambassador all set out their hopes and expectations for last night's Security Council meeting to decide the Iraq crisis.

The US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, said he was seeking further tougher sanctions against Iraq for violating the terms of existing UN resolutions. Calling on Iraq to "stop playing games and start behaving like a normal nation", he demanded sanctions "with teeth, with punitive measures".

A four-point resolution, expected to be tabled by the US and Britain, was said to contain four points: a condemnation of Iraqi action, a call for full co-operation and compliance with Unscom, the UN commission overseeing Iraqi disarmament, a travel ban on Iraqi officials so long as Iraq continued to defy Unscom, and a "commitment to serious consequences" (unspecified) in the event of continued non-compliance.

But the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, who arrived in New York yesterday morning after stopovers in Amman and Paris, set out a series of complaints about Iraq's treatment that he insisted he wanted to put to the Security Council in person. Mixing pleading - "Give us a chance" - with protestations that Iraq was ready to fulfil all its obligations under UN resolutions, Mr Aziz accused Unscom, the UN body that oversees Iraqi compliance, of being subverted by the US for its own ends.

He said Iraq wanted Unscom and the inspection teams to be reconstituted to make them "genuinely international", a date for the ending of UN sanctions, and guarantees that outsiders would "not intrude into the security of a member state". These demands, he said, were legitimate.

He repeated Baghdad's accusation that U-2 surveillance planes working for Unscom were spying for the US, and would no longer have UN status in Iraqi eyes. He also complained that the UN-approved arrangement under which Iraq may sell limited amounts of oil in exchange for food and medicines was not working.

If the UN Security Council thought it could scare Iraq with the threat of further sanctions, he concluded, it was mistaken. "We are not scared of further sanctions," he said.

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who had come in for criticism in some US circles for seeming to bypass the Security Council by sending three special envoys to Iraq last week, spent half an hour with Mr Aziz yesterday morning but apparently made little progress. He said he regretted that he had not yet got the answer he was looking for from Iraq.

If there was any room for manoeuvre, it came in the words of the chief envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who stressed that Iraq must comply fully with all UN resolutions before any of its grievances could be considered.

Compromise of a sort was also reached over Mr Aziz's request to present his case to the Security Council - which was strongly opposed by the US ambassador, Mr Richardson. Mr Aziz will present his case to each Security Council member separately this morning tuesday.

Behind the scenes, the US was being careful not to make the same error it had made when making its original call for new sanctions against Iraq. Then, the Security Council had been split, with France and Russia abstaining. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said yesterday that she had been speaking to the Russian and French foreign ministers and her spokesman expressed confidence that there would now be greater support for the US position.