Dilemma for West over Iraq sanctions

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The Independent Online
THE FORLORN figures who prop up the empty bar of a Baghdad hotel complain bitterly about the way United Nations sanctions are biting. There is not a drop of Heineken in the house.

High in the skies above Iraq, however, these same men, helicopter pilots from the United Nations Sanctions Committee (Unscom), monitoring the eradication of Iraq's lethal weaponry, can see the embargo in a more positive light. In the past 12 months, every barrel of Iraqi mustard gas has been destroyed, says Unscom. Each of Iraq's 82 nuclear facilities has been neutralised. All biological weapons facilities have been eradicated and the UN team is confident every Scud missile has been destroyed.

In the most extensive operation of its kind, the UN experts say they have obliterated Iraq's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction as demanded by UN resolution 687. Furthermore, they say, the Iraqis have in recent months co-operated fully with all their demands. 'They have done an excellent job. Our commission is convinced it's all over. It is watertight. We have faith in the work we have done,' said Jaako Ylitalo, chief Unscom field officer in Baghdad.

A report, presented yesterday in New York by Rolf Ekeus, head of Unscom, confirmed these results. In the light of positive findings, the UN resolution provides for the setting up of a monitoring period, which, if successful, would lead to a review of economic sanctions

Among international observers in Baghdad, however, there is a strong belief that the US does not wish to see sanctions lifted, hoping that by maintaining every curb on Saddam Hussein, his regime can be toppled. Even senior US officials here believe this to be mistaken. 'The sanctions are simply consolidating his power, giving him more central control,' said one official.

The UN Security Council is presented with its most serious dilemma over sanctions since the Gulf war. In the light of the report from the weapons inspectors, the US is facing pressure to explain whether its real purpose is not just to neutralise President Saddam but to remove him.

It will be hard for the US to argue that easing economic sanctions would allow President Saddam to rebuild his armoury. The UN's own inspectors are confident that the monitoring system they are putting in place would be watertight. 'He would have to start from zero - it would be impossible,' said Mr Ylitalo.

The Unscom operation carried out over the past 12 months, when President Saddam first agreed to comply with resolution 687, seem unprecedented. Chemical plants turning out up to four tons of mustard gas a day have been blown up by the Iraqis under the eyes of UN inspectors. Thirty teams of inspectors have scoured the country for Scud missiles. 'We can never be 100 per cent sure we have found every one, but we believe we have,' said Mr Ylitalo.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has neutralised nuclear plants that Unscom officials say were sufficient to produce two to three nuclear bombs: 'They had everything they needed, they just needed the time,' said Mr Ylitalo.

Should the UN not give Iraq some hope that economic sanctions will be eased in the future, President Saddam has already hinted that he may refuse to co-operate with this new weapons-monitoring programme. In that case, say officials in Baghdad: 'The crisis would deepen. We would be back to square one.'