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UN chief sidelined in new stand-off with Iraq

By David Usborne in New York

Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, cut short his trip to northern Africa yesterday and boarded a plane. It was crisis time again, with the United States and Britain once more on the brink of blitzing Iraq with missiles and bombs. But Mr Annan was not bound for Baghdad. He went home.

He literally went home, to his apartment in the upmarket Sutton Place neighbourhood of Manhattan, not to UN headquarters. Because this time, the Secretary-General is firmly on the sidelines. How different to February, when he dashed to Baghdad for the chat with President Saddam Hussein that bought the world a reprieve.

There is a tedium to this cycle of stand-offs with Saddam. But since February, the picture has changed. The way it looked last night, any notion of the world's diplomat-in-chief returning to the banks of the Tigris looked unlikely. The diplomatic door for the US strike is wide open - if it wants to. It is not clear whether the weapons inspections conducted by the UN inspectors, Unscom, will ever resume, or if Washington even wants them to.

The pivotal moment came on 31 October, the day that Saddam announced he was suspending all further co-operation with Unscom, whose work had been at a virtual standstill for weeks anyway. This had a crucial effect: it annoyed even the friends of Baghdad. For the first time probably in years, a degree of unity was established in the UN Security Council. Even Russia conceded that Saddam had gone too far.

The depth of that unity should not be overstated. If the bombs fly, watch for Russia, China and even France to pronounce their dismay. But right now, nobody in the council is standing up for Saddam. That removes a huge obstacle for the US and Britain as they ponder strikes.

How, since last February, have we arrived at this point? A case can be made - and is made by some US officials - that the fluctuations in policy towards Iraq in Washington were carefully calculated to arrive at this point. This is the argument that Clinton has been working a "rope-a-dope" approach to Saddam. In other words, Washington allowed Unscom's work to deteriorate. It bided its time, aware that there was no unity in the Security Council for firm action, until Saddam did what they knew he would do - overstep the mark.

In hindsight, there is sense in this interpretation. It is known - largely due to embarrassing revelations from the former weapons inspector Scott Ritter - that after the February deal, Washington discouraged Unscom from conducting surprise raids on Iraqi facilities. The US, in other words, covertly diluted Unscom's clout to avoid a new confrontation.

The moment that Saddam began to hang himself came on 5 August, when he first curtailed cooperation with Unscom without completely rupturing it. This prompted Mr Annan, who by then was perceived in Washington as being overtly pro-Iraq, to propose a so-called "Comprehensive Review" of the sanctions and inspections regime. The idea was to give Baghdad fresh hope that sanctions could end, perhaps within six months, if it resumed its co-operation. Washington agreed and Mr Annan submitted his proposal in October.

The Security Council - or rather London and Washington - revised the Annan paper slightly. In a letter sent back to Mr Annan on 30 October, the council agreed to the review, but on condition that the burden of proof fell on Iraq, not on Unscom, to demonstrate it was indeed free of all weapons of mass destruction. The council also referred only very obliquely to Article 22 of the 1991 Resolution 687 that says that the oil embargo on Iraq will be lifted as soon as the weapons were indeed gone.

The letter, drafted by Britain, is what triggered Saddam's decree on 31 October that stymied Unscom entirely. Saddam had some reason for anger - the integrity of Article 22 is crucial for him. None the less, everyone was surprised. The Comprehensive Review, even as re-worded by the council, was meant, after all, as an encouragement to Iraq, a ray of hope after seven years of sanctions.

That has been the sequence of events. The "rope-a-dope" argument probably gives Washington too much credit. More likely it finds itself with this newly strengthened hand by accident. But one thing is for sure - February was then and November is now, and this time the bombs may very well get to Baghdad before Mr Annan.

Just before Mr Annan's return to New York yesterday, the US stated baldly that there was no basis for him to go to Baghdad to try to resolve the crisis. Asked about the possibility of a rerun of the February trip, Peter Burleigh, the US representative at the UN, said: "On what basis at this point? I have heard of nothing of substance coming from Baghdad . What is needed now is a positive Iraqi response. That is how to defuse the situation."

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