YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


U.N. Debates Who Has Last Word on Iraq

In Security Council, France and U.S. parse sentences over what offense would trigger an attack on Baghdad, and who would be the judge.

October 29, 2002|Maggie Farley and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — As the United Nations enters a crucial week in its lengthy deliberations over Iraq, Washington and Paris are discussing a compromise that could push the Security Council to agreement.

France and the U.S. agree that there should be "serious consequences" if Iraq refuses to prove it has disarmed. But they have been deadlocked over what those consequences should be and who has the authority to decide them.

In the compromise, France may grant the U.S. its desire to have the term "material breach" in a resolution -- which the U.S. argues would justify military action -- as long as the U.S. concedes that only the Security Council has the power to decide whether Iraq has committed one. France "will accept 'material breach' as long as you get the words around them right," said a council diplomat Monday. "It's feasible that we could have an agreement this week."

The latest compromise is still in early stages, with the United States rejecting France's Sunday night overture and offering a counterproposal Monday. But the nations are edging closer after more than six weeks of wrangling over language, sparking optimism in word-weary diplomats.

"We're doing our best now to come to a solution that will produce unanimity by the council," said a French envoy. "It's not clear if we will manage to do it, but there's no reason to think it's impossible."

In the tussle over language, France's key concern has been not so much Iraq's disarmament as keeping the United States from acting without U.N. approval, diplomats say. In the sometimes arcane art of diplomacy, concepts may get boiled down into simple words laden with political meaning and precedent.

"It's dancing on the head of a pin," another envoy said.

In the Iraq debate, it all comes down to "material breach." On its face, the phrase means a violation of a resolution, but in the contentious discussion on Iraq, it means war.

Although the Security Council already found Iraq in material breach of its disarmament requirements -- in Resolution 707 from 1991 -- the U.S. wants to not only note the past violations, but add that any more violations would constitute a further material breach.

" 'Material breach' is not a subjective term," said Richard A. Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the U.N. "It's a statement of fact."

To the U.S., that fact would provide the legal foundation for the use of military force. In December 1998, the U.S. used a similar argument as a basis to bomb Baghdad as punishment for blocking inspectors. Ambassadors wince when they recall that they were in a Security Council meeting when they heard about the bombing from a security guard who saw it on CNN. "It was a surprise attack," said one Security Council diplomat. "Not only on them, but on us."

That kind of attack is exactly what France is trying to prevent. Because the U.S. is so insistent on having the term in the resolution, France suspects that "material breach" conveys not only the authority to go to war, but the right of the U.S. to judge by itself whether a breach exists.

President Bush also has said that if the U.N. fails to take action against Iraq, the U.S. will assemble a coalition of allies to act on its own.

Paris and other council members believe that it is up to the council to decide on a breach, and has proposed new paragraphs in the draft resolution to keep any "consequences" as part of a clear sequence.

First, the chief weapons inspectors must report if Iraq has failed to comply with the terms of the resolution. Next, the council would meet to determine whether Iraq is indeed in material breach, and if so, it would discuss the next steps. Then, with council agreement -- but not necessarily a new resolution -- a coalition of council members and allies could enforce the decision, which would probably mean the use of military force.

It seems simple. But last week, Security Council ambassadors spent part of a session arguing about a comma. The omission of a single word such as "and" could allow the U.S. to attack Iraq just for leaving items of weapons materiel off a declaration required within 30 days of the resolution's passage -- before weapons inspectors even go back to Iraq.

All these details give diplomats a headache. "We need to find a compromise on language that is beyond ambiguous interpretations," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, the Mexican ambassador who holds a key swing vote on the issue.

"It is very difficult to negotiate these fine details with such great importance when English is a second language for most of us, and there are different legal backgrounds," said Bulgarian Ambassador Stefan Tafrov. "It is better to be clear."

Until the details do become clear, ambassadors spend their time on the phone to each other and their home countries, faxing paragraphs back and forth. Diplomats and their resident Iraq experts from the five veto-holding countries -- the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia -- are ferried in black limousines to each other's embassies to hash out the resolution, line by line.

Walking to and from the Security Council, they are thronged by cameras as if they are movie stars, as reporters with tape recorders shout questions.

This evening, the full 15-member Security Council will meet to go over any changes in the resolution that the U.S. formally introduced last week.

"We've been listening to suggestions and thinking about changes that would strengthen the resolution," Grenell said. "But no decisions have been made."

Los Angeles Times Articles