Raid on Iraq: Concessions come too late to stop bombs

TOO LATE to stop the United States and its allies returning to a state of war, Iraq said yesterday it would allow United Nations arms inspectors to fly their aircraft in its air space and would stop mounting raids across the border with Kuwait to retrieve its equipment before the new border, agreed at the end of the 1991 war, goes into effect tomorrow.

But as the bombing began, the immediate concern of the UN was the impact of renewed military action on its humanitarian aid programme in Iraq and the work of UN arms inspectors as they finish the job of destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Nizar Hamdoon, made the last- ditch offer to the President of the Security Council, Yoshio Hatano of Japan. Mr Hamdoon, a close confidant of Saddam Hussein, told reporters: 'I just called in to the President of the Security Council that Iraq will stop transferring its property from Umm Qasr in the demilitarised zone until resolving the problems that are outstanding with the Unikom people (UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission) over there.'

He went on to say that Iraq would 'approve the flight requests for the Special Commission planes to Iraq'.

Despite the attention given to Iraq's cross-border raids into Kuwait and the slap it delivered to the West by retrieving its own weapons, it was Iraq's violation of the UN ceasefire resolution in refusing to allow flights of UN weapons inspectors that triggered the military strikes, by violating the letter of international law. The flights by U-2 spy planes, helicopters and C-160 transport aircraft are vital to the UN's long-term monitoring of Iraq to ensure it does not rebuild its nuclear, chemical or ballistic missile capability.

The allied bombing campaign will disrupt the extensive UN humanitarian effort inside Iraq. The UN sends food and fuel to the Kurds in the north and maintains a lifeline to oppressed Shias in the southern marsh region.

The UN has about 350 humanitarian workers in Iraq, including some 240 guards. There are no UN people in the south of the country, where last night's bombing was believed to be taking place. Senior UN officials said no action had been taken to evacuate its workers.

The UN weapons inspectors, who have been working their way through Iraq's vast inventory of weapons of mass destruction, are entitled to fly aircraft anywhere they wish in Iraq under the terms of the Gulf war ceasefire resolution. When Iraq denied the UN permission to fly C-160s from Bahrain last week and said any flights in its airspace 'would be fraught with danger' it was in direct breach of its obligations to the Security Council.

The border raids, by contrast, were a less clear violation of international law, because of the vague mandate under which the UN force monitoring the border between Iraq and Kuwait operates. The UN resolution which established the Unikom force states only that it is to 'deter violations' of the border by Iraq by 'surveillance' and 'to observe any hostile action' but not to stop any incursions. Iraq did act contrary to the instructions of the Security Council when it retrieved the weapons cache, but international lawyers are still arguing whether it amounted to a violation of law.

For the past 18 months the UN has been flying some 30 to 40 missions a month in Iraqi airspace, ranging from U-2 flights from high altitude to surprise helicopter inspections as well as transport flights in and out of the country. These flights have been condemned by the Iraqi authorities on numerous occasions as a pretext for political interference by the US, and Baghdad has repeatedly demanded that the UN use Iraqi aircraft and helicopters.

The long-term inspection is designed to be as intrusive as possible, with - in the words of a British diplomat - international officials 'crawling all over Iraq for the foreseeable future'.

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