Airstrikes will likely complicate U.N. talks

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 19, 2001

The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The latest allied airstrikes near Baghdad are likely to complicate upcoming U.

Monday, February 19, 2001

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The latest allied airstrikes near Baghdad are likely to complicate upcoming U.N.-Iraq talks aimed at breaking a stalemate over U.N. sanctions and getting weapons inspectors back into the country.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf on Feb. 26-27 for talks that had been seen as a chance to start a dialogue on the intertwined issues of sanctions and weapons inspections.

In a letter to Annan and the Security Council, al-Sahhaf said the U.N. chief should ”condemn the dangerous aggression and the increase of tension” and should take ”speedy steps to prevent such attacks from taking place again,” the official Iraqi News Agency said Sunday.

Iraq wants the U.N. to lift crippling economic sanctions imposed after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. The United Nations says Iraq must first let inspectors back in to make sure President Saddam Hussein is not developing weapons of mass destruction.

Though a major breakthrough had not been expected from the meeting, the fact that Baghdad requested it and sent such a high-level delegation was seen as positive.

Iraq’s supporters on the Security Council – Russia, China and France – had been hoping the United States and Britain would help their efforts to nudge Iraq into cooperation with weapons inspections.

Instead, U.S. and British warplanes launched their most serious attack on Iraq in two years, hitting air defense and radar sites south of Baghdad Friday night.

The Pentagon said the attack was meant to thwart Iraq’s improving capability to target U.S. and British planes that patrol a no-fly zone set up over southern Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.

But the raid drew widespread condemnation, some of it from key U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe who said it was time for Washington to reconsider its policies toward Iraq.

Russia, France and China all said the airstrikes were unprovoked and would damage international efforts to resolve the sanctions issue.

All three countries want the sanctions lifted.

China called on the United States and Britain on Saturday to stop military action in Iraq immediately to create a favorable atmosphere for the upcoming talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan hopes the meetings will go ahead as scheduled ”because all the major issues remain unresolved and unless we talk out these differences we don’t think they can be resolved.”

Under Security Council resolutions, the sanctions cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed. The inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, just ahead of allied airstrikes launched to punish Iraq for blocking inspections.

In December 1999, the Security Council formed a new inspection agency to replace the old one, which had been tainted by allegations that its inspectors spied on Iraq on behalf of the United States.

The new inspectors are ”ready to go whenever Iraq might give the signal,” Eckhard said. But Iraq continues to bar them, insisting that its weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated and sanctions should be lifted immediately.

After meeting with Annan on Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Power challenged Iraq to agree to resume inspections during the upcoming talks. In return, he held out the possibility of Iraq becoming ”a progressive member of the world community again.”

But the U.S. and British patrols of the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq – and the bombing raids – have also become an issue in the sanctions debate.

”It is inadmissible to call upon Iraq to cooperate and at the same time continue to bomb Iraq’s territory,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov told the Security Council last year.

Iraq claims the flights are illegal and a violation of its sovereignty, and both Russia and China insist there is no Security Council authorization for them.

The United States and Britain say the patrols were authorized under resolutions calling for the protection of Iraqi minorities – Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north.