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U.S. Snubs Iraqi Letter, Remains Ready to Strike

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hours after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared to avert an imminent U.S. air attack by pledging in a letter Saturday to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, President Clinton rejected the offer because it contained “unacceptable” conditions.

Hussein’s pledge “is neither unequivocal nor unconditional. It is unacceptable,” Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, told reporters after more than three hours of intense meetings at the White House.

Berger called on Iraq to withdraw its conditions at once or face the continued threat of U.S. military action.

Iraq had appeared to defuse the crisis when Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan offering to resume full and unconditional cooperation with weapons inspectors--cooperation that Iraq canceled for the latest time two weeks ago. Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoun, delivered Aziz’s letter to the secretary-general’s residence in Manhattan alongside the East River.

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Half an hour after he met with Hamdoun, Annan spoke on the phone with Aziz.

“On the basis of that conversation, he feels confident the weapons inspectors and the humanitarian workers will be able to return to work in Iraq,” said Annan’s spokesman, Fred Eckhard. “He intends, upon consultation with the Security Council, to order the humanitarian workers back to their jobs immediately.”

Eckhard said that chief weapons inspector Richard Butler would decide when his staff, which left Baghdad earlier in the week, would return.

As the day wore on, however, the initial euphoria over Iraq’s letter turned to stone-cold reality.

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Aziz followed his original letter with an “annex” that called on the U.N. Security Council to end economic sanctions, especially the embargo on the sale of Iraqi oil, as the price for Iraq’s resumption of cooperation. Aziz also called on the Security Council to allow Iraqis to begin living “normal lives.”

White House officials were having none of it.

“This is the world turned upside down,” Berger said of Iraq’s conditions for its compliance with earlier agreements involving U.N. weapons inspections.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials said airstrikes that were scheduled to begin Saturday were postponed to give the Iraqis time to reconsider their position. The officials emphasized, however, that the pause could be a short one.

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“We were poised to take military action, and we remain poised to take military action,” Berger said.

U.S. officials said the planned attack involved B-52 bombers with air-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as sea-launched cruise missiles from eight U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. The officials said hundreds of missiles would have been fired, possibly as a prelude to subsequent days of bombardment with laser-guided bombs and other munitions.

However, Iraq’s last-minute gesture split the international solidarity that the U.S. government had carefully assembled in recent weeks. On Friday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had boasted of U.S. diplomatic success in lining up the unanimous support of the world community for punitive action against Baghdad. But on Saturday, Russia, France, China and some Arab states welcomed the Iraqi overture.

At the U.N., the Security Council met late Saturday to assess the situation.

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Hamdoun met briefly with Peter Burleigh, the U.S. representative on the Security Council and its president for November, shortly before the council’s consultations started almost two hours late.

The Iraqi ambassador said the annex was not linked to the letter he delivered to Annan. He insisted that it merely stated Baghdad’s preferences.

Burleigh asked Hamdoun to put his explanation in writing. Hamdoun initially refused.

But after a strongly worded rejection of Hamdoun’s position by the White House, the Iraqi ambassador delivered a follow-up letter to the council in which he said the annex was “not connected” to the document delivered to Annan. “I put that in writing,” he said, “so there would be no further confusion. It should be acceptable.”

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After 90 minutes, a Russian diplomat emerged briefly from the Security Council meeting and said Hamdoun’s follow-up letter was still unacceptable to the United States. He said American representatives argued before the council that aspects of the letter Iraq sent to Annan earlier in the day were confusing.

After almost five hours of deliberations, the council adjourned until this afternoon.

During the meeting, Hamdoun submitted a second letter to the council seeking to convince members, notably the United States and Great Britain, that the “annex” was not linked to Iraq’s decision to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors.

British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said members were seeking consensus and “were beginning to inch in the right direction.”

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Russia’s ambassador, Sergei V. Lavrov, said Iraq’s letter and the clarifications complied with the demands of the council, which Burleigh disputed.

“The only thing I am going to say about the U.S. position is that it was very clearly and forcefully stated by the national security advisor earlier this afternoon,” he said. “We will obviously be reporting the statements and comments made by our colleagues . . . to Washington for consideration.”

Clinton canceled a planned trip to Malaysia to remain in Washington to monitor the crisis. He sent Vice President Al Gore to represent him at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said the president hoped to leave Tuesday or Wednesday to visit Japan, Korea and Guam, picking up his Asia tour after the APEC forum.

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Iraq ceased cooperation with the weapons inspectors Oct. 31, setting off the international crisis that included threats of retaliation by the United States and Britain, which poured extra forces into the Persian Gulf arena.

Aziz said Saturday that the Iraqi leadership made its gesture of compliance after receiving assurances from Annan and several sympathetic U.N. member states that a planned comprehensive review of Iraq’s record in eliminating its weapons of mass destruction would be followed by the council’s consideration of easing sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait.

Berger said the United States is prepared, as it has been for months, to participate in a Security Council review of the sanctions.

But he said there will be no lifting of the sanctions at the end of the review unless Iraq makes abrupt changes in its behavior.

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In addition to the unfettered arms inspections and the destruction of Iraq’s remaining weapons programs, the United States is demanding full Iraqi compliance with all of the Security Council resolutions passed at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, including the payment of reparations to Kuwait.

In Baghdad, government officials claimed that the threat of U.S. military action did not influence Iraqi actions Saturday.

Yet diplomats and U.N. officials in Baghdad said the Iraqis were certainly aware that they were only days or hours away from being on the receiving end of the harshest strike by Western bombers and cruise missiles since the Gulf War.

“We offer this chance [for a peaceful solution to the crisis] not out of fear of the aggressive American campaign and the threat to commit a new aggression against Iraq, but as an expression of our feeling of responsibility and in response to your appeal and those of our friends,” Aziz wrote to Annan. “We affirm that the people of Iraq would not relinquish their legitimate right in having the iniquitous embargo lifted and to live normally like other nations of the world.”

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Aziz’s letter capped a week of high-tension consultations after both Iraq and the United States signaled that they were prepared to go to the brink in their battle over the future of sanctions and, ultimately, the survival of the Iraqi regime.

According to a senior U.N. official in Baghdad, U.N. envoy Prakash Shah held four meetings with Aziz and other members of the Iraqi leadership over the past week exploring a way out of the crisis.

The last meeting was Wednesday night with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf and Aziz.

At the same time, the Russian ambassador and other countries friendly toward Iraq were calling on Hussein to rescind the Oct. 31 decision to stop working with U.N. weapons inspectors.

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At every meeting, the Iraqis expressed a preference for a peaceful solution and appeared to be looking for a face-saving way out, the official said. The United States and other Security Council members, however, were adamant that Iraq should not gain any concessions from this episode.

Although Berger said the administration also prefers a peaceful end to the ongoing crisis, he added that Iraq must make a clear, unambiguous and unconditional declaration to comply with all of the post-Gulf War U.N. resolutions.

To end the crisis on the conditions Iraq offered Saturday “would only set up a new crisis a few weeks down the road,” Berger said.

U.N. officials also made clear that Annan gave Iraq no guarantees that any comprehensive review would automatically lead to the lifting of sanctions.

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“I conveyed to them that the secretary-general cannot give any guarantees to them on behalf of the Security Council, which will conduct the review,” Prakash told reporters in Baghdad.

Iraq, which had curtailed U.N. weapons inspections since Aug. 5, announced when it halted cooperation with the arms inspectors that after eight years of working with experts from the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, it still had not seen “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Annan and the Security Council labeled the Iraqi decision a flagrant act of defiance, and the Clinton administration began methodically to prepare for a military campaign to force the Iraqi leadership into resuming cooperation.

Besides diplomatic efforts to get support from allies in Europe and the Middle East, the United States began a buildup in the Persian Gulf that has involved more than 300 aircraft and 20 warships, plus two aircraft carriers.

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No one knew exactly when U.S. and British forces might strike, but the signals that time was running out were unmistakable.

Also unnerving for the Iraqis was the fact that there were fewer cracks in the anti-Hussein coalition than in previous confrontations because even friends of Baghdad such as Russia and France found it difficult to defend the decision of Hussein to simply cut off relations with UNSCOM.

Tensions seemed to reach a peak Wednesday, when the remaining U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad abruptly pulled out, apparently based on a warning from Washington to UNSCOM head Butler that it would be dangerous for his staff to remain.

That same day, Annan cut short a diplomatic mission in North Africa to deal with the mounting crisis back in New York.

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By Friday, Annan was meeting with the Security Council, and some U.N. officials in Baghdad were bracing for an attack.

About 50 international humanitarian aid workers left in the U.N.'s headquarters in the Iraqi capital were expecting the bombs to start falling by Saturday morning, one U.N. source said.

Other observers in Baghdad concluded that Hussein had once more taken the measure of his opponent and gauged exactly just how far he could push.

“Saddam Hussein has an impeccable sense of timing. He knows when to precipitate a crisis and when to defuse it. That’s how he stayed in power for all these years,” said one long-serving ambassador in Baghdad.

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Kempster reported from Washington, Daniszewski from Baghdad and Goldman from the United Nations. Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.


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