Iraq 'backing off' in missile inspection row

THERE were indications last night that Iraq wanted to avoid further confrontation with the United Nations over the monitoring of its missile test sites, despite its refusal to allow UN officials to seal off the equipment, diplomats said.

Rolf Ekeus, the head of the UN special commission in charge of dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, was due to return to Iraq today to try to defuse the confrontation over the monitoring at two missile sites, both about 70km (54 miles) south of Baghdad. His visit makes it virtually certain that the Security Council or the US will not authorise military action against Iraq while he is in the country.

A team of UN inspectors left Baghdad abruptly on Sunday after they had been prevented from attaching seals to the offending equipment, which includes stands for firing rockets and for monitoring test rockets banned under the terms of the Security Council resolution that ended the Gulf war.

Earlier Iraq had offered to dismantle the equipment, but this was unacceptable to the UN commission because they said it could easily be reassembled. The Security Council has warned that failure to comply with the UN resolutions allowing it to install monitoring cameras could result in 'serious consequences'. Both President Bill Clinton and the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, have hinted at military action against Baghdad if it continues to defy the UN.

The Security Council received a letter from the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammad Said al-Sahaf, in which he accused the UN of creating a pretext for a 'new military aggression against Iraq' and appealed to the Council to prevent any such attack. However, there were also indications from Baghdad that a compromise was possible in which the missile site would not engage in any illegal activity, and Baghdad would agree to some kind of monitoring activity. Until now, Iraq has objected to long- term monitoring of its missiles.

The incident comes a year after a similar dispute when Iraq refused to allow UN inspectors to search the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad for weapons believed to be hidden there. Iraq backed down after the US threatened military action.

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