US and Iraq hint at at end to their sabre-rattling act

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The UN Security Council today hears a report on the visit to Baghdad by Richard Butler, head of the team inspecting suspected Iraqi weapons facilities. It comes amid signs that the US-Iraq stand-off is easing. Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, appeared calm and mildly satisfied when he spoke to reporters in Baghdad yesterday, at a press conference conducted partly in English and televised live in the US.

Mr Aziz, who has been Iraq's front man and chief negotiator during the crisis, as he was during the Gulf war, listed several results of Mr Butler's visit that Iraq regards as positive, including a change in weapons-inspection procedures - the issue which sparked the dispute with the US in the first place.

In particular, he said, a new technical commission would be formed to which outside experts could be co-opted, apparently ending the monopoly of the UN special commission on disarming Iraq (Unscom), which Iraq regards as being in the pocket of the US.

Iraq was also satisfied that, for the first time, Mr Butler had been accompanied by other members of Unscom - the British, French and Russian commissioners - considering, in the words of Mr Aziz, that the meetings had been held "in a professional manner" and been "mostly objective". While Mr Aziz continued to vilify the US, saying it had fomented the crisis over inspectors' site access as a pretext for launching a military strike, he said he doubted the US would act militarily.

The same message came from UN officials before today's Security Council meeting. They would not confirm Mr Aziz's statement that the UN would agree to expand the arms-inspection teams - reducing the proportion of Americans without reducing the number of US inspectors - but did indicate that military action was not now an option, if it had ever been.

The US President, Bill Clinton, addressing an end-of-year press conference, condemned Iraq for continued defiance of UN resolutions by refusing access to areas designated presidential compounds. "If there is any further obstruction of the UN in doing its job [conducting arms inspections], we will have to consider other options," he said. While intended to leave open the option of military force, his words none the less sounded less threatening than before and suggested that, despite a lot of US hardware in the Gulf, an order to attack was not imminent.

Mr Clinton had also mused on the character of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, whom he called "clever-crazy" and who had calculated - wrongly - that he could exploit apparent differences in the Security Council to break sanctions.