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Dominoes on Iraq May Not Fall According to U.S. Plan

September 15, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — Now that the United States has thrown down the gauntlet, the Bush administration's best-case scenario for confronting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a rapid sequence of events resulting in the dismantling of his deadliest weapons--or in military action.

President Bush stressed the urgency of action again Saturday before meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Camp David. "This is the chance for the United Nations to show some backbone and resolve as we confront the true challenges of the 21st century," he said.

But the reality of the unfolding diplomatic drama may be quite different. Indeed, the momentum generated by the president's speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday is likely to meet a series of hurdles that could both slow it and make the process much messier than it now appears, according to U.N. diplomats, former weapons inspectors and Iraq experts.

The preferred U.S. timetable is tight:

* Two weeks or less to win compromise on a tough U.N. resolution ordering Iraq to "comply or else" on disarmament, and authorizing the use of force, if necessary, to secure that goal.

* An additional four weeks to get U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq to begin finding and dismantling its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.

* Then, within six months or so, Iraq would surrender its deadly arsenal and potentially also begin to comply with a host of other U.N. resolutions. At the first sign of obstruction, U.N. members would be empowered to use force.

Smooth. Clean. Decisive.

And very improbable, according to U.N. diplomats, former weapons inspectors, Iraq experts and even some U.S. government analysts.

The first hurdle for the United States is a tough diplomatic sell at the United Nations. The president continues to push hard.

"The U.N. will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century or it will be irrelevant. And that's what we're about to find out," he told reporters Saturday. Bush also used his weekly radio address to press both the U.N. and Congress to sign on to his initiative against Hussein.

But a basic question has already emerged over the number of resolutions to pass. Washington favors one powerful resolution that would be "front-loaded" and cover all the issues and options, according to a State Department official. Other key nations, and possibly U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, want a separate resolution to deal with the issue of military force.

Another diplomatic challenge will be persuading Russia, which as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council has veto power, to cooperate. The problem is not political, as it was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Soviet Union had an alliance with Iraq.

Now that Russia is a budding democracy, Moscow's ties with Baghdad--and Washington's problem--are commercial.

"Probably the most important element to make this work, to get something substantial through the U.N., is working out a deal with Russia," said James A. Placke, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq now at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Placke said that Russia has been quick to use its Security Council veto on Iraq-related issues. As Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has consolidated power, he has made economic issues a priority, Placke said.

"There's a pattern in the way Russia has responded to this issue," he added. "Russia is unlikely just to complain or abstain. It will either vote for a resolution or against it."

Moscow has two concerns. One is Iraq's huge debt to Russia for past purchases of weapons and commercial goods. The other is oil development contracts, which have been set aside pending the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. Before signing on to any new U.N. effort, Russia will want an agreement from Washington that leaves both untouched, U.S. experts predict.

France, another permanent member of the Security Council, also will want guarantees, Placke said. The French oil company TotalFinaElf negotiated a development contract for the Majnoon oil fields on the Iranian border, which were discovered in the late 1970s and have been undeveloped since.

The U.S. timetable will face a second set of hurdles if the process of depriving Iraq of its deadliest weapons begins. The most basic problem may be defining a violation of the U.N. resolution.

"When the Iraqis say they can't find the key to some trunk, is that enough to go to war? Can the inspectors always go where they want without warning? Like if they want to go to a place where the Iraqis have an air defense system, shouldn't the inspectors tell them so it can be turned off?" asked a former senior U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.

"There's this categorical language that sounds great in New York, but when you start to implement it, you sometimes have to make compromises with the Iraqis that actually make sense."

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