The standoff between Iraq and the United Nations hung in the balance Saturday as U.N. officials waited for a "final answer" from Baghdad this morning to a proposed U.N. compromise and the United States continued to weigh possible military action.
After a day of wrangling with Baghdad about the compromise offer, Rolf Ekeus, head of the U.N. commission that is supposed to oversee Iraq's post-Gulf War disarmament, emerged to tell reporters that the negotiations had gone as far as they could, and it was now up to Iraq to accept or reject the plan.
"We have covered all the issues . . . and we have not arrived at a solution," the U.N. official said. "There is nothing more to discuss, and we will expect the final answer (from Baghdad) tomorrow." Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Abdul Amir Anbari, was not available for comment following Ekeus' statement.
There was no immediate indication about the likelihood of Iraq's compliance with the U.N. demands. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has tested the West's resolve before and backed down just before precipitating a crisis, but analysts say this time he has become more defiant and is more unpredictable.
The dispute arose July 5 when Iraq barred U.N. weapons inspectors from entering the Agriculture Ministry building in Baghdad. U.N. officials say the structure houses archives on Iraqi missiles and nuclear weapons production. Baghdad denies it and contends that the inspectors' entry would violate Iraqi sovereignty.
Officials declined to disclose what the U.N. compromise proposal contained. There were rumors that Ekeus agreed to replace the Americans and Britons on the U.N. weapons-inspection teams with nationals from other countries that had not been at war with Iraq, but some officials discounted those reports.
Also uncertain is whether the United States, Britain and France--the three major powers that are pressing hardest to take military action against Iraq, if necessary, to force Hussein to comply with the U.N. mandates--would accept Ekeus' compromise even if Baghdad accepted it.
For one thing, as Ekeus himself concedes, so much time has elapsed since last Thursday, when the United Nations pulled its inspection team from its surveillance of the Agriculture Ministry, that the records could have been transferred without the allies' knowledge.
For another, U.S. officials regard this specific confrontation as only one of many Iraqi violations of the Security Council resolutions imposed after Baghdad's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
For the past several days, senior Bush Administration officials have been reciting a lengthy litany of Iraqi violations, from starving Kurdish villagers and launching military attacks on Iraqi Shiites to rejecting U.N. talks on its boundary with Kuwait and intimidating U.N. personnel.
Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense, told CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday" program Friday that even if Baghdad agrees to comply with U.N. demands on the Agriculture Ministry controversy, the West might still insist on a promise that it will comply more fully with these other obligations.
Settling the Agriculture Ministry dispute is "only one part of being in compliance," Wolfowitz said.
Meanwhile, President Bush met at Camp David, Md., with his top national security advisers to review a series of options on how to respond to Iraqi intransigence on the weapons-inspection issue but withheld any statement following the session pending the Iraqi response.
A White House statement issued just after the meeting broke up said the Administration would "continue to discuss this matter with the U.N. Security Council and to consult with our coalition partners." It added that "no options have been ruled out."
The Defense Department's Wolfowitz echoed the White House's cautious stance that, whatever the outcome of the current talks, Washington would not rush to launch a military strike without first conferring with U.S. allies and the Security Council.
"I think we've got to give ourselves the time that's necessary to do the very extensive kind of consultation that the President did the first time around," just before the Persian Gulf War, he said. "I think we can act at times and places of our choosing. We're in charge of this situation."
In Manila, Secretary of State James A. Baker III dismissed reports that Iraq was offering concessions to avert a showdown. "This is just another example of Iraq's cheat-and-retreat approach," he said. "Unless there is full compliance with with U.N. Security Council resolutions, we seem to be marching in the same direction that we marched before."
It wasn't clear whether the three big powers would seek Security Council backing if they decided to launch a military strike. U.S. officials contend they already have adequate authority to enforce previous resolutions, but a new mandate from the council would bolster their standing.
Nevertheless, all sides agree that, barring a dramatic escalation of the current troubles by the Iraqis, the Administration may have an uphill fight to win broad support for a Security Council resolution supporting new military action against Iraq.
While most of the 15 council members insist that Iraq's defiance of the U.N. resolutions should not be allowed to continue unchecked, many are leery about using force again against a Third World government. Analysts say there isn't the sense of urgency that accompanied Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990.
Indeed, despite the tension here in New York, some analysts believe that the United States and other major powers view Saturday's negotiations as something of a sideshow, and that they will insist on broader compliance by Iraq no matter what the outcome.
Saturday's talks included three face-to-face negotiating sessions between Ekeus and Iraq's Anbari and several telephone calls to Baghdad, including at least one in which Ekeus spoke to high government officials there himself. The two envoys have agreed to meet once again early this morning.
Ekeus admitted, indirectly, that he had been too optimistic when he predicted on Friday that the talks might reach fruition soon. "I underestimated the problems last night, if I may say so," he confessed sheepishly.
Ekeus declined to forecast whether the two sides would be able to resolve their differences. "It was solvable last night," he mused. "It depends. . . ."
There was no official comment from Baghdad by the end of the day, but the Iraqi News Agency, monitored in Nicosia, Cyprus, carried excerpts of harsh newspaper commentaries.
"The language of threats which is being escalated by the imperialist circles cannot influence our national positions and independent decision-making," the government daily Al Jumhuriyah said.
And in Saturday's edition of Babil, a newspaper published by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, the Iraqi president's press secretary urged Iraqis to taunt and humiliate U.N. inspectors, saying they are CIA agents.
"Waiters must not provide them with accommodation and give food to those who have denied milk to our children," Abduljabbar Mohsen wrote.
"No one should give them a glass of water, drive a car for them, guide them or answer any of their questions."
The Camp David meeting was convened on short notice after Bush canceled a planned weekend vacation. It took place at Aspen Lodge, a rustic presidential cottage at the mountain hideaway about 90 miles northeast of Washington.
Among those present were Vice President Dan Quayle, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates.