Iraq: US stays silent and wants to see details

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The Independent Online
AS A MAJORITY of countries hailed yesterday's agreement between the United Nations and Iraq, the United States kept a studied silence, warily reserving judgement until it had access to the full details. Whether from the White House, Congress, or media pundits, the message was a non- committal and sometimes peevish: "wait and see", "show me', "the devil's in the detail'.

President Bill Clinton diverged only briefly from a scheduled address to state governors to say that he had been "working on the deal" and was consulting US allies. He had already had "a long talk" with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and was planning calls to the French President, Jacques Chirac, and Russia's President, Boris Yeltsin. "We want to see the details," said a White House spokesman.

Administration officials, including the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and Defense Secretary, William Cohen, who spearheaded recent efforts to persuade the American public of the need for air strikes on Iraq, were also holding back, apparently waiting for the President. Only the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, evinced optimism, saying the Administration would be "very pleased" if the agreement met US demands.

These include "full and unfettered access" to all suspected sites for UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, no time limit for inspections and no Iraqi veto on the composition of inspection teams.

From Congress, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, reiterated that any agreement must meet these requirements. He also called for "very significant penalties" for future non-compliance to be built into any new UN resolution on Iraq, which the US is expected to press for in the Security Council.

Mr Gingrich echoed a view widespread in US political circles that even if the immediate crisis was over, a new stand-off was likely within a month or two. Senator John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said in the short term "we have averted a situation where American lives would have been lost", but "in the long term, ... I have received no indication Saddam Hussein has changed his commitment to acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction". The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, described Kofi Annan's mission to Baghdad as an example of "how the Administration's foreign policy is subcontracted to others" - ie the United Nations.

Both Mr Clinton and Mrs Albright had tried to head off domestic criticism of US policy in recent days by introducing the notion of the US "national interest" to justify US military action. Mrs Albright told a television interviewer on Sunday that the US reserved the right not to observe an agreement between the UN and Iraq if it did not correspond to US interests. Previously, Mr Clinton had stressed that the US was acting only in the framework of UN resolutions.

Any agreement now presents the United States with a dilemma. Commentators noted yesterday that the US risked finding itself "in a box" with international opinion: saddled with an inadequate agreement, but unable to act for political reasons. With more than 30,000 troops, hundreds of planes and dozens of ships on alert in the Gulf region, the US has flaunted its preparations for military action to the point where failure to act risks being interpreted as a US climbdown. But the political cost to the US of acting unilaterally is higher now than it was before the agreement.