WITH A U.S.-led strike on Iraq possibly only days off, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered an 11th-hour deal with Saddam Hussein, averting what could have been the most significant conflict in the region since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The new agreement ended a three-month standoff between Iraq and the international community by providing UN weapons inspectors access to eight so-called presidential sites Baghdad had previously declared off-limits. A seven-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on February 23 provides special procedures for inspections of presidential sites where UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will have to be accompanied by diplomats.
Since last December, UNSCOM has been seeking access to the presidential compounds to search for documents and computer data it believes Iraq has hidden in an attempt to deny the information to inspectors. Although UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors are supposed to have complete access to all sites in Iraq in order to verify the elimination of Baghdad's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their ballistic missile delivery systems, Iraq has refused to provide access to the so-called "presidential and sovereign" sites. The new agreement, while reaffirming the inspectors' right to "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to presidential and all other sites, recognizes Baghdad's concerns about the composition and conduct of UNSCOM's teams and the sensitivity of the presidential sites.
According to the MOU, inspections of presidential sites will be conducted by a Special Group composed of senior diplomats appointed by Annan, and experts drawn from UNSCOM and IAEA. Annan announced on February 26 that Sri Lankan Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the new UN undersecretary-general for disarmament, would be leading the Special Group as commissioner. Dhanapala achieved acclaim in 1995 for shepherding the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty through the treaty review conference.
UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler of Australia said Dhanapala would be reporting to him and that he was "delighted" with the secretary-general's selection. As of the end of February, procedures for the Special Group were still being worked out at the UN, and regular UNSCOM inspections into Iraq's past weapons programs and concealment activities were expected to resume in early March.
The Clinton administration has offered cautious approval of the Annan-Aziz deal, but insists that with several details of the presidential inspections agreement to be worked out, final judgment should wait until the new procedures are tested. President Bill Clinton has said the new arrangements could enable UNSCOM to fulfill its mandate, "but the proof is in the testing." Clinton said he intends to keep the U.S. strike force deployed in the Persian Gulf until the new inspection arrangements are in effect and Iraqi compliance is confirmed.
Republican reaction to the secretary- general's diplomacy was mixed. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) complained "it is always possible to get a deal if you give enough away," while two top leaders of the House of Representatives, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) took a wait and see approach. Other Republicans objecting to the secretary-general's deal included the chairmen of the foreign affairs committees, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and House International Affairs Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), as well as House National Security Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-SC).
Annan's trip to Baghdad came after three months of escalating tension over UNSCOM's ability to inspect all sites within Iraq. Last November, only days after accepting a Russian diplomatic initiative to resolve the October 29 to November 22 …