US presses for UN backing as Baghdad stands firm

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Key members of the Security Council last night reached broad agreement on a resolution condemning Iraq for blocking UN arms inspections. The Americans are expecting the council to return a positive vote today.

Mary Dejevsky reports.

The resolution would condemn Iraq and impose the international travel ban on Iraqi officials that was approved by a slim majority in the Security Council three weeks ago, but not implemented. It would also express the UN's "firm intention" to take "further measures" if Iraq does not immediately and fully comply with UN weapons inspections.

The US Ambassador Bill Richardson said the council would vote on the resolution today and he expected "near unanimity" among the 15 council members. "This resolution is going to be passed tomorrow," Mr Richardson said. "And we think it sends an unmistakable signal for Iraq to comply immediately ... This resolution is moving like a freight train."

The resolution would prolong the suspension of the two-monthly sanctions reviews for as long as Iraq continues to obstruct UN inspections of suspected weapons sites. The resolution stopped short, however, of threatening the "serious consequences" for non-compliance that the United States was said to have wanted. That stronger wording was believed to have been opposed by France and Russia.

Toned down or not, however, there seemed little prospect that the resolution would shift Iraq. Yesterday, Iraqi officials turned away American weapons inspectors for the eighth time in nine day. Senior Iraqi ministers meanwhile insisted that Iraq would not back down.

In Baghdad, the foreign minister, Mohammad al-Sahaf, said that Iraq would not lift its ban on US weapons inspectors, would not rescind its threat to U2 spy planes and would not be scared by further sanctions.

In New York, where he was still lobbying to present his country's cause before the UN Security Council, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, dropped his pleading of the previous day and took a more openly hard-line stance. "If you do not have a change in the position of the Security Council, you cannot expect a change in the position of Iraq," he told reporters. He then repeated Iraq's claim that 44 per cent (in 1996) and now 37 per cent of those holding sensitive positions in Unscom, the UN commission overseeing the disarming of Iraq, were Americans and rejected much lower figures given by Unscom's head, Richard Butler, barely an hour earlier

In Washington, the crisis with Iraq cast its shadow over the commemoration of Veterans' Day, when Mr Clinton inserted a new warning to Iraq into his setpiece address at the Arlington National Cemetery.

l A majority of Americans would approve a US military strike on Iraq, according to a new opinion poll. The poll, conducted over the weekend by the Wirthlin Worldwide survey, found 61 per cent of those polled would support President Clinton if he launched a military strike on Iraq.