The Security Council, seeking to avoid using military power against Iraq again, proposed Wednesday to send its chief inspector to Baghdad to negotiate terms for U.N. inspection flights in that country, according to U.N. and Western officials.
No discussion of using force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was heard during the council's hourlong session, these officials said, in contrast to what some delegates privately termed the "saber rattling" in Washington regarding the interrupted helicopter flights over Iraq.
The 15 Security Council members "believe they can work this helicopter problem out" with Abdul Amir Anbari, Iraq's U.N. envoy, said one senior U.N. official.
The low-key attitude toward the controversy was augmented by the council's tentative approval Wednesday of the secretary general's report urging that Iraq be allowed to export more than $1.6 billion worth of oil annually to help revive its economy.
Anbari dismissed the U.S. actions Wednesday as "a tempest in an empty cup of tea" and a "cheap ego trip" against Iraq. He said there was "no justification" for any Western show of force, adding that "a very constructive dialogue is ongoing" between his country and U.N. officials to devise ways to resolve the controversy.
The expectation here was that Hussein would back down again in his latest confrontation with the world body. However, early in the day, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said there were "no indications" that Iraq was easing its objections to aspects of overflights by U.N. inspectors in U.S.- and German-piloted helicopters.
But beyond the narrow issue of the arms verification flights is the larger conviction here that Hussein is foot-dragging on inspections to prevent the discovery and destruction not only of missiles and perhaps nuclear weapons but also of his capacity to produce more arms.
"There is still concern that important weapons materials are being kept away from us, which we must find and eliminate," said Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish ambassador who heads the U.N. inspection commission. "First, nuclear materials and ballistic missiles. We are reasonably comfortable about (Iraq's) chemical weapons."
Security Council President Jean-Bernard Merimee proposed that Ekeus be the U.N. official to go to Baghdad to negotiate the issue of the helicopter flights.
If Ekeus is chosen, one source said, he may propose that Iraqi navigators ride on the U.N. helicopters as a face-saving compromise for Baghdad. This would not set any precedent since Iraqis accompany U.N. inspectors on their visits. But the principle is that Iraq cannot decide where the inspectors go and how they get there, one official said.
Officials here expressed doubt that new U.S. intelligence findings were responsible for the plans to reintroduce Western forces in the Gulf region to pressure Hussein to stop interfering with the U.N. inspections. In their view, the new moves were made to reinforce the Security Council's determination not to tolerate Hussein's delaying tactics any longer, combined with the belief that he still may possess a good deal of firepower.
Specifically, 100 to 150 Scud missiles like those fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War are still unaccounted for today, Western diplomats accredited at the U.N. said. Moscow said it had sold 800 or so Scuds to Iraq, of which 470 were used against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, 132 were fired in the Gulf War and 65 were found in Iraqi depots by U.N. inspectors, the officials explained.
Inspectors also suspect that as many as 100 centrifuges for making weapons-grade uranium may still exist in Iraq. About 120 of them were found at enrichment plants, along with physical evidence and statements by Iraqi scientists suggesting that 80 to 100 units were to be added. No incontrovertible evidence has been found that Iraq had nuclear weapons.
But Leslie Thorne, head of the U.N. nuclear inspectors in Iraq, said Wednesday that Baghdad's nuclear program could have been building two or three nuclear bombs per year by the mid-1990s.
Besides being denied access to Iraqi facilities, U.N. inspectors were embarrassed last week to find that four of eight Scud missile transporters, which they believed had been made unusable, were welded back together. That discovery, during inspections before the helicopter dispute suspended operations, has cast doubt on the adequacy of U.N. arms-destruction procedures and raised the likelihood that inspectors must revisit some facilities to ensure that "destroyed" weapons are inoperable, Western officials said.