Three days of talks between officials of the US, France, Britain, Russia and China seemed likely to produce no more than a bland declaration of principles, with no consensus on how much to offer Iraq for a resumption of inspections, nor on precisely what President Saddam Hussein should do before sanctions can be eased.
The US, broadly backed by Britain, insists sanctions must stay, at least for a test period of several months during which Baghdad must demonstrate it is complying with terms laid down after the Gulf War, and giving unimpeded access to the returned inspection teams.
But the other three P-5 members argue that for humanitarian reasons if nothing else, curbs on Iraqi imports and exports should be reduced, even before Baghdad has delivered real proof of progress in dismantling weapons of mass destruction.
This week the gap proved unbridgeable, dashing hopes of agreeing a resolution that could be passed in the next few days. The basis of discussion has been a Dutch-British draft, supported by 11 of the 15 Security Council member countries. But what matters are three of the four hold-outs: France, China, and Russia - all of whom have veto powers - as well as Malaysia.
A final meeting between P-5 foreign ministers yesterday was expected to end with a statement promising more talks on a resolution. This formula amounts to an exercise in damage limitation, avoiding an outright admission of failure which, British diplomats say, would only encourage President Saddam to play on the differences within the council.
In some ways the stalemate suits everyone. President Saddam can still point to the hardships allegedly inflicted on ordinary Iraqis by the sanctions and US and British air strikes that have continued intermittently since the heavy attacks in December, after the final withdrawal of Unscom.
The absence of a deal, and no return of the inspectors, at least denies President Saddam the opportunity to provoke crises at the moment of his choosing, by denying them access. Nor does he gain the propaganda victory that would be constituted by a lifting of sanctions, without a resumption of stringent inspections.
Complicating the outlook further, Iraq this week ruled out in advance anything short of unconditional removal of sanctions.Reuse content