Unscom head may quit over spy crisis

Click to follow
RICHARD BUTLER, the chairman of Unscom, the United Nations body responsible for ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, signalled yesterday that he may be preparing to step down later this year as fresh allegations surfaced about the covert manipulation of his inspectors by United States intelligence agencies.

As the crisis surrounding the fate of Unscom continued to deepen at UN headquarters, new aerial skirmishes were reported in the northern no-fly zone over Iraq. The Pentagon said a US warplane fired on an Iraqi anti- aircraft radar site early yesterday morning. There were no casualties.

The incident was the fourth over Iraq in 10 days and came as Baghdad continued to stoke tensions by refusing to recognise the no-fly zones and vowing to shoot down patrolling jets.

On Wednesday, Mr Butler rejected claims that information gathered by his inspectors had been conveyed to the US. Additional evidence surfaced yesterday, however, to suggest that Unscom, wittingly or otherwise, had indeed been the source of a flow of intelligence to Washington and in particular to the secretive National Security Agency (NSA).

Media reports from Washington cited unnamed US officials suggesting that the country had used intelligence gleaned as part of Unscom's operations to help in the planning of the joint American and British bombing campaign last month. Some US reports indicate that British and Israeli intelligence analysts also have access to the Unscom data.

One report, in The New York Times, said the US had deliberately placed spies under cover inside Unscom to penetrate Iraq's security apparatus.

The revelations, if true, could have significant diplomatic consequences at a time when the UN Security Council is struggling to overcome deep divisions, which opened immediately after the December bombardment. In particular, they threaten to poison already delicate relations between Washington and Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General.

"If these allegations were true it would be damaging to the UN's disarmament effort worldwide," Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for Mr Annan, said yesterday. "The reports in today's papers tend to lend more credence to these allegations." He said the Secretary-General was in contact with Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, about the claims.

The Wall Street Journal reported that an eavesdropping device supplied by the US to Unscom to help it to crack President Saddam Hussein's communications was set up to beam what it heard directly to the NSA in Maryland via satellite. While some of what the NSA learnt was given back to Unscom, other details were used to identify targets in December's attacks, the paper said.

In a searing editorial, meanwhile, The Washington Post accused Mr Annan and his advisers of leaking the allegations about the compromising of Unscom in an attempt to undermine Mr Butler and Unscom.

In a first indication that he may be tiring of the attacks on Unscom and on himself, Mr Butler told The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday that he was contemplating leaving his post on 30 June when his current contract expires. With both Russia and China calling for his resignation, however, it is questionable whether he will be able to hang on even until then.

Iraq has long alleged that Unscom was a cover for US espionage and yesterday reacted with glee to the latest allegations. "We have under the hat of the United Nations, spies and CIA people," Humam Abdul-Khaleq, the Minister of Culture and Information, declared

The revelations are also certain to embarrass those Arab governments, most notably Egypt, that have stood by Washington and London in the wake of the air strikes.