Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

23rd January 2000

Arabian nights genie saving Iraq again

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NEW YORK - When a newspaper reporter once described President Saddam Hussein as Iraq's strongman a term the US media frequently uses to label anti-American political and military leaders a villager in his hometown of Tikriti took the description too literally.

"No, no, no," he complained to the visiting reporter, "Saddam Hussein is the strongest man in Iraq."

Last week, the much-maligned Iraqi president displayed his political strength even inside the Security Council as the UN's most powerful body remained sharply divided and in almost total disarray over the appointment of a new Iraqi arms inspector.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation to appoint Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish disarmament expert, to head a new UN arms inspection team in Iraq, was virtually shot down by three of the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council Russia, China and France.

The rejection was unprecedented since Mr. Annan never or very rarely makes any key appointments without consulting member states.

This time around, he went ahead with his recommendation, despite indications that his proposal will face strong opposition no less from three of most powerful member states.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said that during the past 30 days, Mr. Annan had come up with 25 names, but could not find one on which all 15 members could agree. The consultations had obviously failed.

"So he put forward the name of the person he thought best for the job," Mr. Eckhard said. "It is now up to the Council. The ball is in their court," he added.

But the Council seems sharply deadlocked a state of affairs which is probably keeping Saddam Hussein jubilant.

All three countries opposing Mr. Ekeus are seeking an arms inspector who would be "acceptable" to Baghdad so that the Iraqis could cooperate with the UN in the ongoing monitoring of Iraq's weapons capabilities.

Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasun went one step further when he said Beijing would prefer a candidate from a developing country who "may be better positioned to convince Iraq to cooperate with the Council."

The US, which along with Britain, had backed the Ekeus appointment, was livid. The rejection of a US-backed nominee was a resounding slap in the face to the Americans who usually get what they demand.

An added twist to this ongoing political drama is the fact that France, a traditional US ally, joined Russia and China in an exercise which has put Saddam Hussein in the driving seat.

Suddenly, Iraq it seems had joined the exclusive club, consisting of the US, Britain, France, China and Russia, in holding a veto power in the Security Council implicitly rather than explicitly.

Mr. Ekeus was the head of the first disarmament commission the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq during 1991-1997 and was succeeded by the controversial Richard Butler of Australia. Since Butler's three-year term ran out, Annan decided to bring back Mr. Ekeus.

When he was the UN's chief arms inspector in Iraq, Mr. Ekeus complained that the Iraqis told him the most incredible stories about their concealed weapons programmes.

'It's like the Thousand and One Nights, where every night they tell a different story to save themselves," he said.

The Iraqis, however, charged that both Mr. Ekeus and Mr. Butler had allowed the UN commission to become a secret vehicle for US spying on Iraq.

In December, the Security Council decided to replace UNSCOM with a new UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which was to be headed by Mr. Ekeus. But now UNMOVIC is in limbo because it is headless.

Until and unless UNMOVIC declares that Iraq does not have the means to produce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the nine-year-old UN military and economic sanctions imposed on Baghdad in August 1990, would remain intact. The sanctions were intended to punish Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait.

But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said the US will not support any moves to lift sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.

The US, perhaps rightly, argues that Russia, China and France, have ulterior motives in fighting the Iraqi sanctions.

All three countries are expecting billions of dollars in contracts from Iraq, including agreements to explore oil, and to rebuild the country's war-devastated economic infrastructure.

Perhaps one of the more enduring economic realities is that Iraq at present is sitting atop 10 percent of the world's petroleum much more than Canada, Mexico and the US. The only country with more oil than Iraq is Saudi Arabia.

And ever since the UN imposed sanctions in 1990, most of the Iraqi oil has remained untapped and appreciating in value, with last week's high of $29 a barrel.

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