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The World | U.N. ULTIMATUM ON IRAQ

Security Council Mandate Echoes Resolution Past

November 09, 2002|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — On a chilly November day, the U.N. Security Council gathered with full pomp and solemnity to read Saddam Hussein the riot act.

It offered the Iraqi president "one last sincere chance to give common sense a chance to work, or, if you will, for the instinct of self-preservation to come into play," a diplomat said.

The diplomat stood outside the Security Council chamber in front of a huge Picasso tapestry depicting the horrors of war and warned that this was no time for Hussein to try to save face. "He now has to save his people, his country," the diplomat said. "He has to save the world. He has to save peace in the region and global peace."

The date was Nov. 29, 1990. The diplomat was Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the last Soviet foreign minister. The resolution gave Iraq until Jan. 15, 1991, to pull its troops out of Kuwait or face war.

Twelve years, one war and 16 Security Council resolutions later, reminders of that day echoed through the proceedings Friday, when by a unanimous vote the council gave Iraq "a final opportunity" to comply with U.N. demands or face unspecified "serious consequences."

Mindful of the past, ambassador after ambassador walked out into the hall Friday where Picasso's tormented "Guernica" mural replica still hangs. One by one, they delivered well-scripted talking points intended to convince Hussein that he could avoid another war by finally surrendering any weapons of mass destruction, while at the same time conveying that this time, they really, really mean it.

The diplomatic dress code being what it is, only the ambassadors' faces seem to have changed -- not their ties. The cavernous glass U.N. building, with its early-1950s architecture and furnishings that appear of similar vintage, also feels like a time capsule.

Yet geopolitics -- and the politics of the diplomatic battle inside the U.N. -- have changed dramatically.

In 1990, the resolution explicitly authorized the use of military force for only the second time in the world body's history, the first being the start of the Korean War.

The vote was 12 to 2, and the Soviet Union, in the flowering of its fatal reform period, joined the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Finland, Romania, Malaysia and Zaire in approving the resolution.

Cuba and Yemen, the only Arab nation then on the council, voted against it. China abstained.

On Friday, the vote was a unanimous 15 to 0. The hardest sells were Syria, Russia, China, Mexico and France, all of which wanted to ensure that the U.N. resolution was not used by the U.S. as a pretext to strike Iraq.

After the vote, Deputy Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yishan, whose debonair bearing and idiomatic English contrasted sharply with the frumpy suits and Chinese-language tirades of his counterparts of a decade ago, asserted that China had played a role in forging the international consensus.

China remains opposed to the use of force against Iraq, and, ever wary of Western encroachment on its own sovereignty, demanded the insertion of language respecting Iraqi sovereignty. China also called on the United Nations to suspend and eventually lift sanctions against Iraq if Hussein complies with the disarmament resolutions.

Diplomats on Friday stressed the importance of the unanimous vote in sending a strong message of international determination that represents the last hope of persuading Hussein to disarm.

Friday's resolution, however, is significantly weaker than the 1990 document, which took just 10 paragraphs to authorize "all necessary means" to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Friday's document runs 10 pages of intricately worded legalese, including a four-page annex, and it spells out a two-step approach that would require the Security Council to convene again to discuss how to handle any Iraqi defiance.

The 1990 resolution came about after a whirlwind of diplomacy by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who lobbied fellow ministers up to the doors of the council chambers. True to tradition, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell didn't know until Friday morning that Russia would support the resolution, and he learned that Syria would make the vote unanimous when U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte placed a cell phone call to Powell as Negroponte was walking into the chambers about 10 a.m.

After Friday's vote, ambassadors from several countries made it clear they expect the Bush administration to obtain a separate authorization from the Security Council before any military action is taken against Iraq. U.S. officials made it equally clear they do not intend to be hamstrung.

"Iraq has been offered a rigorous and fair way forward," Irish Ambassador Richard Ryan said. "What is most important is that the resolution deflects the threat of war."

But President Bush, in a news conference a day earlier, promised that this 17th resolution seeking Iraqi disarmament would be enforced, by military means if necessary.

"This time we mean it. See, that's the difference -- I guess," Bush said. "This time it's for real. And I say it must not have been for real the last 16 times, because nothing happened when he didn't [disarm].

"This time something happens."

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