Iraq: UN prepares to resume inspections

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations yesterday began preparations to resume inspections of suspect Iraqi weapon sites, as Baghdad's foreign minister pronounced somewhat ambiguously that Iraq was committed to the "items of the agreement" he signed with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, "and nothing else".

The statement by Tariq Aziz was issued without elaboration by the official Iraqi news agency. But it will do little to allay concerns that, perhaps sooner rather than later, Iraq may nitpick at the accord, putting to the test Monday's Security Council resolution warning of the "severest consequences" if the UN inspectors were denied access.

And if that happens, a re-run of last month's divisions between the Council's "big five" permanent members would be more than likely. Like the US, Britain maintains that existing UN resolutions give ample authority for military strikes, and the new one, according to Mr Blair's official spokesman, "if anything, strengthens that".

Foreign Office officials stressed last night that the text was "exactly what we've been pressing for". It recognised the "future political reality" that if Iraq didn't comply with the agreement it had signed, there would be the "severest consequences" - "and everyone knows what that means".

But both Russia and China are adamant the resolution does not amount to a carte blanche for the use of force, and Moscow's foreign ministry spokesman, Gennady Tarasov claimed that "the prevailing opinion" in the Security Council was that a further session would be needed to decide what to do, should Iraq break its undertakings".

It is against this uneasy backdrop that UN inspectors are preparing to resume work, almost certainly next week, and a French envoy, Bertrand Dufourcq, the Secretary General of the Quai d'Orsay, yesterday left Paris for Baghdad to impress upon the Iraqi government the importance of toeing the line.

Washington meanwhile, has ordered the vaccination of all US military personnel in the Gulf against anthrax, one of the biological agents that Saddam is said to be secretly manufacturing, in defiance of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. The precautionary measure, taken by the Pentagon at the request of General Anthony Zinni, commander of the 35,000 American troops in the Gulf, will start this month.

In contrast to previous Gulf showdowns however, the UN is brandishing a carrot as well as heavy sticks. A team of experts is due this weekend in Baghdad to see how production facilities can be upgraded to produce the $5.3bn (pounds 3.27bn) worth of oil Iraq will now be permitted to sell every six months under the UN oil-for-food programme, more than double the previously authorised $2bn. Iraq however claims its industry, much of it in disrepair for lack of parts, can only pump $4bn-worth.