Iraq: US retreats into a war of words

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The United States directed a torrent of fierce rhetoric towards Iraq yesterday following Baghdad's refusal to allow the new UN inspection team to visit suspected weapons facilities. But much of the fight seemed to have gone out of Washington's position, with the White House and the Pentagon saying that diplomacy was the preferred solution.

This message was also conveyed by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who said in a scheduled foreign policy address that "unconditional access" for UN inspection teams "has to be the [Security Council's] bottom line". While insisting that the US would continue to be "vigilant and determined" and would "not rule out any options", she also blamed the US Congress for effectively undermining the US position by its continued refusal to pay back dues owed to the United Nations.

"The failure to pay UN debts undermined our leverage just as Saddam Hussein was challenging the authority of the Security Council," she said. Her remarks amounted to an acknowledgement by Washington that there was little chance of obtaining security council agreement to military action against Iraq so long as the US had not settled with the UN.

The UN Security Council was due to meet yesterday to consider Iraq's objections to the predominantly US and British composition of the new weapons team and its decision to bar access to selected sites. On Monday, President Clinton said he expected the UN Security Council to take "strong and appropriate action" if Iraq prevented the team from doing its job. But Defense Secretary William Cohen said yesterday: "I think the US will continue to pursue diplomatic initiatives to the point where ... we exhaust all reasonable initiatives. We have not reached that point yet."