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TENSION IN THE GULF

Annan Quits Sahara Mission to Aid in Crisis

Diplomacy: U.N. chief, in Morocco trying to end land dispute, reluctantly decides to return to N.Y.

November 12, 1998|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CASABLANCA, Morocco — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, cutting short an important diplomatic mission in North Africa on Wednesday because of the mounting crisis in Iraq, urged President Saddam Hussein to resume cooperation with international inspectors to spare Iraq's people any more suffering.

Annan reluctantly made a decision to fly back to New York today. He was on the third leg of a five-country tour aimed at ending a long dispute over the ownership of the Western Sahara--a regional conflict that has lasted nearly 25 years and left more than 100,000 people living in miserable conditions in desert exile camps in Algeria.

The secretary-general has been under intense pressure from some foreign governments--with the exception of the United States--to ride to the rescue in the showdown between the U.N. Security Council and Baghdad, much as he did in February.

At that time, the Iraqi president was keeping U.N. weapons inspectors from visiting presidential sites, and the United States and Britain were days away from launching military strikes. Annan flew to Baghdad for direct talks with Hussein and persuaded him to reopen the sites to inspectors.

Nearly nine months later, the same scenario is being played out. But so far, Annan has hung back from direct involvement, in part because he has seen no signals that Iraq is willing to submit to the will of the international community. Absent such signs, Annan sees no need to be a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, in the view of an official familiar with his thinking.

Annan has, however, been in almost daily telephone contact with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and with the special U.N. envoy now in Baghdad, Prakash Shah.

At a news conference in Marrakech, Annan said he was "saddened and burdened" by the turn of events. Baghdad's surprise Oct. 31 decision to end cooperation with weapons inspections came a day after the Security Council agreed to Iraq's request for a comprehensive review of its compliance with council resolutions, the first step to the possible easing of sanctions.

Annan said he too would like to see sanctions lifted so that Iraq "can regain its place among the community of nations." But, he added, "as I have said repeatedly, the only way for Iraq to achieve this is to fully cooperate with the U.N. Security Council."

The secretary-general said he would prefer a peaceful resolution but indicated that Iraq had the next move.

Answering a question about the possibility of a U.S. military strike, Annan put the responsibility on the Iraqis. "The American position is in the hands of Saddam Hussein," he said. "If [Hussein] were to begin cooperation, we would not have to undertake these maneuvers."

The secretary-general looked drawn and said he had been "on the phone half the night." An aide said the decisive factor that led to Annan's decision to return was an early-morning phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. No details of the conversation were given.

The secretary-general had visited Mauritania, Morocco and the disputed territory of Western Sahara itself. But he had not yet gone to Tunisia and Algeria. On Wednesday he hastily phoned the Algerian and Tunisian foreign ministers to apologize, as well as the president of the Polisario Front, the rebel group headquartered in Tindouf, Algeria.

Annan, who was hoping to persuade all parties to accept a timetable to hold a referendum on Western Sahara's future by December 1999, had tried to visit the region earlier this year. But that trip never got off the ground in February because of the earlier crisis with Iraq.

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