Once again, it's peace in our time...for now

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The Independent Online
IT WAS peace in our time yet again. There were UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, trading compliments in the aftermath of their latest exercise in crisis-resolution: an agreement that purportedly gives UN weapons inspectors full access to all military sites in Iraq in return for the foreseeable end of economic sanctions.

An old monochrome photograph of Saddam Hussein glowered down on the pair at their Baghdad press conference and within hours the Iraqi President was chairing a meeting of his ruling command council and declaring "a day of victory for the Iraqi people."

"Constructive and successful," Mr Annan called his discussions. "Constructive, objective and intensive" was how a beaming Mr Aziz described them. One could not but be reminded of a beaming British prime minister at Heston aerodrome six decades ago. But who was playing Mr Chamberlain? Mr Annan or Mr Aziz?

There was talk about "balance" in the terms of the settlement that has supposedly reined in the dogs of war, although Mr Annan refused to give us any details. So did Mr Aziz, who cut a sharp figure in his dark green military fatigues beside the grey-suited and white-bearded Mr Annan. The latter hoped that sanctions would be lifted soon - something that is clearly not in the diary of Madeleine Albright - and Mr Aziz beamed approvingly.

Indeed the US Secretary of State was back on CNN yesterday, repeating her assertion that if the UN settlement was unsatisfactory to the United States, her country would feel free to "pursue its national interests" in the conflict. On the same basis, of course, Iraq might re-pursue its "national interests" in Kuwait, although this was not a name that crossed any lips at the smoke-filled press conference in Baghdad yesterday. "I did not seek encouragement or otherwise [from Mrs Albright]," Mr Annan informed us. "We did talk about the status of the discussion and where we are to end up. She did have some questions which I addressed and I will be talking further when I return to New York."

Asked if he had given the Iraqis any deadlines, Mr Annan put on a look of pained dignity. "I did not come here with ultimatums (sic) and the Secre- tary-General of the United Nations doesn't speak in these words." More modestly, he said that "a lot will depend on what happens when I get to New York - after the Security Council discusses my report, I would hope this would resolve the issue ... I can say that there are no time limits or deadlines in the agreement."

The UN, he added, should "be sensitive to the concerns of the dignity, security and sovereignty of Iraq."

Indeed it will, if Mr Annan has anything to do with it.