In an extraordinarily blunt attack, the French foreign ministry yesterday accused the Security Council of "discrediting itself" by voting, as demanded by Washington and London, a mere one week's extension of the oil-for-food programme for Baghdad, instead of the normal six months.
The move was to step up pressure on the Council to approve a resolution, under elaboration since mid-summer, calling for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq after an 18-month absence. In return, Baghdad would be offered a complete lifting of the sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf war.
But France was so outraged by the gambit that its representatives walked out of the room before the vote. The terms of the oil-for-food resolution were "deliberately unrealistic", the ministry said. "Was it reasonable to vote on a text which one knows cannot be carried out?" According to Paris, it takes a minimum of three weeks for oil sales to go through, and for equivalent food and medical aid to be distributed inside Iraq.
France's anger muddies the waters further as intense negotiations between the five permanent members of the Council continue ahead of this weekend's deadline - the last practical moment for a deal before the Christmas break and the arrival in January of five new Council members, four of them believed to be more hostile to the US/British scheme.
Under the proposals, a new UN inspectorate, provisionally called Unimovic, would start work in the spring. After a test period, the body would report back to the Security Council and if Iraq was deemed to be in compliance, sanctions would be suspended for a fixed period which could be rolled over by express vote of the Council.
But large obstacles remain. The oil-for-food row, and Iraqi threats to penalise French business interests, could jeopardise Paris's support. And Moscow, which has always backed an early end to sanctions, is unlikely to accept the "pretty intrusive" inspections regime demanded by Britain and the US, even though the two powers are no longer demanding the elimination of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The Security Council is now discussing the completion of "key disarmament tasks" by Iraq. The oil embargo can only be fully lifted when the arms inspectors certify the destruction of Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and long-range missiles that could reach Iraq's neighbours.
Longstanding arguments over the length of the test period, and how automatically a sanctions suspension should be extended, have still to be settled. Other issues include how much co-operation Iraq is to give to the weapons inspectors to qualify for the suspension.
There are also concerns about whether the arms inspectors will be able to operate without political constraints from the Security Council's powerful permanent members.
And it is not clear if Iraq will agree to let back the hated UN experts at all. Even if a resolution is agreed, Saddam is demanding a total prior lifting of sanctions before a single UN inspector sets foot on Iraqi soil. British officials believe however this is an opening shot: "If the Security Council agrees, Saddam usually listens." But if no deal can be reached, Britain and the US could face an embarrassing climbdown on the oil-for- food issue. "Obviously we can't have another one week extension," one said, "and obviously we can't let the whole arrangement lapse."Reuse content