Global Policy Forum

U.S. More Isolated in U.N. on Keeping the Iraq Sanctions


By Barbara Crosette

New York Times
January 12, 1999

The United States is finding itself increasingly isolated in its Iraq policy as a growing number of Security Council members and Arab nations support lifting an embargo on Iraqi oil sales or significantly relaxing sanctions in other ways to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people.

But contrary to what the Iraqis may hope, there is also solid agreement that long-term international supervision is needed to prevent Iraq from acquiring or developing prohibited weapons. Among proposals to be discussed are the creation of a new inspection system and ways to monitor money that Iraq would earn if it sold oil freely.

The Clinton administration wants to retain the existing system and the right to use the military to enforce it, although the majority of Security Council members oppose further use of force without council approval.

Washington has focused on keeping sanctions in force until Iraq complies with all disarmament requirements. The United States would be willing only to expand a program that allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to buy food, medicine and other necessities.

Peter Burleigh, the American representative on the council, said in an interview on Monday night that undoing existing resolutions that govern those policies would not be easy and that no other delegation has proposed a concrete way to make the changes.

"The whole body of what I think everyone would agree is international law can't just be wished away," he said, adding, "The disarmament issue is the key to the lifting of sanctions."

"I am not convinced that the proposals for the lifting of sanctions are actually gaining a wide momentum," he said. "While there are various delegations and governments that are making comments about the lifting of sanctions or the modification of sanctions, how those would relate to the body of resolutions pertaining to Iraq is not at all clear."

Although any change in Security Council policies could be blocked by an American veto, Washington wants its policy to have the backing of the council and does not want to find itself alone. Administration officials have also acknowledged that if the United States uses its veto to keep sanctions in force, over time they could erode.

Some council members say the debate is an urgent one because there are no inspectors in Iraq now and no work is being done there. On Monday, the chief arms inspector, Richard Butler, said that he had suspended surveillance flights by American U-2's and French aircraft while the Security Council discusses the crisis. But the council has no timetable for the discussions, which could take weeks or even months.

The United States is finding that the core group opposed to its policies on Iraq -- formed around Russia, China, France and sometimes Brazil -- has strengthened with the entry of at least two new council members, Malaysia and Namibia, which will hold two-year rotating seats. Malaysia in particular is opposed to sanctions in Iraq.

American diplomats are also watching Canada and the Netherlands, two other new members, for signs of where they will stand. In Amsterdam on Monday, the Dutch representative on the United Nations Special Commission to disarm Iraq supported the view that sanctions could be rewritten while the arms inspections system remained in place.

The commissioner, Koos Ooms, said this would rebuild unity in the Security Council and "would at least snatch away from Saddam Hussein the weapon of being able to say that the Iraqi people are suffering because of the sanctions."

The French government says it is preparing new proposals for the council to end the oil embargo but institute other controls. Lifting the embargo would free up the economy and permit increased imports, allowing those Iraqis who can afford it to use their money to buy food and other items.

Even the British, the strongest ally of the United States on Iraq policy, now favor a new inspection system, Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday in an open letter to the French newspaper Liberation.

Butler, the chief arms inspector, also acknowledged on Monday that a change in the inspection system seems inevitable. He said whatever system emerges from the council debates "would be a bit different from the past."

"This organization and this job of mine is under a microscope at the moment," he said on Monday at an arms control conference in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment.

On Monday in Moscow, Russia's Foreign Ministry called again for the dismissal of Butler, the executive chairman of the Special Commission, after reports last week that the United States used the commission for espionage. The commission, known as UNSCOM, has been responsible for disarming Iraq since 1991. The sanctions, imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, were linked to arms inspections at the end of the Persian Gulf War.

Secretary General Kofi Annan defended Butler on Monday. "I don't think the issue is Butler," he told reporters, after repeating that he had no evidence that Butler had cooperated with United States in spying on Iraq. "I don't think the issue is UNSCOM. We are dealing with much larger issues about compliance of Iraq and stability in the region."

Blair, in his letter to Liberation, wrote that Britain agreed with the United States that an expansion of the "oil for food" program would be the best way to aid Iraqi civilians. Iraq is now permitted to sell up to $5.2 billion in oil every six months.

"We are holding talks with France and other eminent members of the Security Council to find a formula allowing monitoring to resume in Iraq," he wrote, "but under a new system that would avoid the inspectors' presence creating a new crisis every three months."

For the council, the major problem is how to separate the sanctions issues from disarmament without giving any ground, real or psychological, to Saddam, whom even some Arab nations now openly condemn. Furthermore, no one has put forward a plan for winning Iraq's cooperation or creating an enforcement system.

The council will meet on Tuesday to look at the relief situation in Iraq, its president for January, Celso L.N. Amorim of Brazil, said on Monday.

"Before we're able to address the broader political issues of Iraq," he said, "we have to address some concrete steps that can be taken both on the humanitarian file and the disarmament file."

Acknowledging the inertia that has seized the council on the subject of Iraq, Amorim, said, "There was a general feeling that the Security Council has to deal substantively with the issue, which is hasn't been doing for the past two or three weeks."

For the Arabs, the moment is a particularly delicate one, said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League representative at the United Nations who is now director of the Center for the Global South at American University in Washington. He said recent American and British actions -- including the December air strikes and possible misuse of the Special Commission for spying by Washington -- have created crises in both the United Nations and the Arab League.

Although few if any diplomats would have predicted less than a month ago, when American and British air strikes hit Iraq, that Saddam would be this isolated at a critical moment for him, Arabs say their governments are aware of how volatile public opinion in the Middle East can be.

Last week Saddam called on Arab populations to overthrow governments critical of him. Arab governments, with Egypt in the lead, are sending emissaries to Baghdad to ask the Iraqis to cool the polemics, diplomats said. They saw some success in the relatively muted session of the Iraqi Parliament held over the weekend.

While there are Arab leaders who would like to see Saddam out of power, they would have trouble supporting more American attacks and would not be able to back an overthrow from outside, Maksoud said.

But among the Arabs, Maksoud said, there would be great support for a change in sanctions that helped free, at least economically, the Iraqi middle class while arms control inspections remained.

"There is a widespread crisis of conscience about the Iraqi people," he said. At the same time, Arabs do not want to see the United States or Britain portray themselves as the Iraqis' protectors, he added.

"That rubs the Arab psyche very badly," Maksoud said.


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