US puts military action against Iraq on hold

As Baghdad's unilateral deadline neared for US inspectors to leave Iraq, the United States and the United Nations were engaged in intense diplomatic efforts to defuse a potentially inflammatory situation. An imminent US military strike, however, seemed not to be on the cards, as Mary Dejevsky reports.
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The Independent Online
Washington yesterday appeared intent on working through the UN, at least until all possibility of a solution to the weapons inspection in Iraq had been exhausted. While stressing the firmness of the US position, administration officials made clear that any threat of military action was on hold until the special UN mission to Iraq reported back, probably on Monday.

The mission, comprising Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, Emilio Jorge Cardenas, a former Argentine ambassador to the UN, and Jan Eliasson, Sweden's state secretary for foreign affairs, was expected to arrive in Baghdad today. Although the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, has agreed to receive the delegation, it was not known whether he would agree to suspend today's deadline for the departure of Americans working for the UN and the threat against UN reconnaissance planes that was contained in a letter to the UN Security Council at the weekend.

UN officials would not say whether the lifting of the threats was a condition for the three-member mission to proceed, nor speculate about what would happen if Saddam Hussein declined.

Iraqi officials yesterday turned back three UN weapons teams incorporating US citizens when they arrived at inspection sites, but Baghdad made no move to act on its threat to shoot down UN reconnaissance planes. Flights by US-loaned U2 spy planes proceeded yesterday as planned.

According to one view, the threat against the U2s was intended by Iraq to back up its call for US UN-employees to leave, and so would not come into effect until today.

In Washington, officials stressed that the special UN mission was not going to Baghdad to negotiate, but to impress upon Saddam Hussein the need to comply with UN resolutions. But observers also noted that Washington was concerned to preserve the unity of the Security Council, and did not want to reopen the split that had precipitated Saddam Hussein's move.

US attempts two weeks ago to toughen UN sanctions against Iraq for non- compliance with weapons inspections had been opposed by four Security Council members, including France and Russia, and were described this week by several officials as a "tactical error". A similar division would be opened up if the US launched a military strike - even though Washington believes that in principle it, and the UN, have the authority to punish Iraq for violating existing UN resolutions without seeking new instructions from the Security Council.

UN officials in New York said the mission had to make clear to Iraq that it was unacceptable for any country to pick and choose the nationality of UN delegates or inspectors. They also noted that it was not only - or mainly - American participation in UN teams that had been challenged, but the authority of the UN itself and its Secretary General, Kofi Annan. This was why the Security Council had approved the emergency mission to Baghdad.

l Jordanians voted yesterday in parliamentary elections which have been boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties. The parties say parliament has been weakened by successive governments appointed by King Hussein and that yesterday's vote was rigged. The vote is strongly biased towards tribal areas and away from the cities.