Global Policy Forum

U.S. Pressed UN to Cancel Iraqi Arms Inspections


By Barton Gellman

International Herald Tribune
August 16, 1998

Washington - The Clinton administration has intervened secretly for months, most recently August 7, to dissuade United Nations weapons teams from mounting surprise inspections in Iraq because it wished to avoid a new crisis with the Baghdad government, according to knowledgeable American and diplomatic accounts.
The interventions included an August 4 telephone call between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Richard Butler, executive chairman of the UN Special Commission responsible for Iraq's disarmament, who spoke on a secure line from the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain.

As a team of specialists stood poised in Baghdad, according to persons acquainted with the call, Mrs. Albright urged Mr. Butler to rescind closely held orders. The team was to mount ''challenge inspections'' at two sites where intelligence leads suggested they could uncover forbidden weapons components and documents describing Iraqi efforts to conceal them.

After a second high-level caution from Washington on August 7, Mr. Butler canceled the special inspection and ordered his team to leave Baghdad. The disclosures were made Thursday by officials who regarded the abandoned leads as the most promising in years and objected to what they described as the American role in squelching them. U.S. efforts to forge a go-slow policy in Iraq have coincided with the announcement by Baghdad that it would halt nearly all cooperation with the UN commission and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. The two panels are responsible for ridding Iraq of ballistic missiles and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

The behind-the-scenes campaign of caution is at odds with the Clinton administration's public position as the strongest proponent of unconditional access for the inspectors to any site in Iraq. Led by the United States, and backed by American threats of war, the Security Council has demanded repeatedly since 1991 - most recently in Resolution 1154 on March 2 - that Iraq give ''immediate, unconditional and unrestricted'' cooperation to the inspection teams. That last resolution, at U.S. insistence, promised ''the severest consequences for Iraq'' for further defiance.

Last week, as Mrs. Albright reportedly sought to rein in Mr. Butler, the administration was retreating from the vows it made six months ago to strike immediately and with significant military force if Iraq failed to honor a February 23 agreement that resolved the last such crisis over inspections. At that time, administration spokesmen described a ''snap back'' policy of automatic military retaliation if President Saddam Hussein violated his agreement with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Now the administration argues, as a White House spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said this week, that Iraq is proposing ''a cat-and-mouse game'' and ''we're not going to play.'' He said the United States would continue its ''encouragement'' of Iraq's compliance with its obligations and would not allow economic sanctions to be lifted until it did so. Mrs. Albright, in a one-sentence statement issued through a spokesman, said Wednesday night: ''U.S. policy has been to fully support Unscom in its inspections, and I have never told Ambassador Butler how to do his job.'' She and those speaking for her declined to answer further questions about her August 4 ''private discussions'' with Mr. Butler and would not address specifically whether she had advised him to cancel the planned raids.

Mr. Butler, reached by telephone, said any suggestion that he received orders from Mrs. Albright would be ''a very considerable distortion of what took place.'' ''No member of the council, including the United States, has purported to give me instructions,'' he added. ''They all recognize that their job is policy, my job is operations.'' Asked whether Mrs. Albright urged him or advised him not to go forward, Mr. Butler said any answer ''would be a very slippery slope'' in which ''I'd have to tell you what the Russian ambassador said, what the French ambassador said. Forgive me, but I won't get into that.''

Beginning in June, according to knowledgeable officials, the UN inspectors developed secret plans for surprise raids at two sites where they believed they would find evidence of forbidden chemical and biological weapons and the ballistic missiles capable of deploying them. The officials declined to describe the sites further, noting that they are still in operation. Mr. Butler dispatched senior lieutenants to London and Washington in late June to provide highly classified briefings on the intended inspection ''targets,'' the sources said.

Formally, Mr. Butler reports equally to all members of the Security Council and does not give them advance operational plans. But one official said Mr. Butler understands ''it's suicide to go forward with an inspection like this'' without informing his principal sponsors, the United States and Britain. The two governments, according to knowledgeable officials, acknowledged to Mr. Butler's deputies that the UN commission had the right to make its own decisions. But they worked in concert in the weeks that followed to dissuade Mr. Butler from going forward with the inspection plan. After a meeting with Ambassador Peter Burleigh, the second-ranking U.S. delegate to the UN, Mr. Butler was left with the plain understanding that Washington did not support his plan.

Mr. Butler canceled the raids in July but laid contingency plans to reschedule them this month after meetings August 3-4 in Baghdad with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Mr. Aziz announced late on the first day that Iraq would answer no further questions about its forbidden weapons, asserting that all the answers had long since been made. On August 4, Mr. Butler notified the U.S. government that he had authorized a team to conduct the raids August 6. That same day, he got word that Mrs. Albright wished to speak with him and traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain for a secure telephone discussion. Mrs. Albright argued, according to knowledgeable accounts, that it would be a big mistake to proceed because the political stage had not been set in the Security Council.

Mr. Butler agreed to a three-day delay in hopes that he could build broader support during informal consultations with the Security Council. But after he briefed the council governments in New York, he got another high-level American call urging him to have the inspection team stand down. The same day, he ordered the inspectors home.

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