clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

U.N. chief, Saddam clear the final hurdle

U.N. chief Kofi Annan and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein settled the last major obstacle Sunday to opening presidential palaces to U.N. arms inspectors, the main condition for avoiding a U.S. attack, Annan's spokesman said.

The agreement came during a three-hour meeting between Annan and Saddam at the Republican Palace, one of eight presidential sites that Iraq had declared off-limits to U.N. weapons inspectors, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard."We've reached an agreement," Eckhard said. "We have a text."

One Iraqi official, who also insisted his named not be used, was asked whether there was a deal. He replied, "Yes."Eckhard said "we expect the text will be acceptable to all 15 members of the Security Council," including the United States, which has said it would refuse an agreement that it believes undermines the inspectors' authority.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said preliminary accounts had been received from Baghdad, but he refused to assess them. "We've got a lot of serious questions. It's a very serious matter at a serious time, and we want to get some questions answered," he said.

Annan and Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, met late Sunday to agree on the precise wording of an agreement the secretary-general will take back to the Security Council.

Annan was scheduled to return to New York on Monday and brief the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

The crisis over weapons inspections has brought the Persian Gulf to the brink of war.

The United States has sent a naval armada and 25,000 troops to the region to mount air strikes unless Iraq agrees to open all sites, including eight presidential palaces, to the U.N. weapons inspectors.

Pro-Iraq protests have erupted across the Arab world - Jordan had to send out tanks in one desert city to contain them - and sent Israelis scurrying for gas masks and diplomats there preparing to leave. Israel also decided Sunday to distribute anti-biotics to protect against a biological attack, despite Annan's news.

Britain, America's strongest backer for a military strike, reacted cautiously.

"The expectation is that Kofi Annan will make an announcement in the morning whether a deal has been brokered," a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said on customary anonymity. "Even then, he will report back to the Security Council the details of that."

Annan briefed Blair by telephone on his discussions with Saddam, the spokesman said with-out elaborating.

Annan met with the Iraqi leader after talks with Aziz since Friday failed to resolve the last major obstacle - Iraq's demand for a time limit on inspections of presidential compounds.

Eckhard said that time limits were not part of the agreement but that details of the deal would first be presented to the Security Council.

The United States and other council members had rejected any deadline.

The U.N. inspectors are trying to determine if Iraq has complied with U.N. orders, issued at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to destroy all long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. That condition must be met before U.N. economic sanctions can be lifted.

Before the announcement, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in London that the United Nations could consider lifting the sanctions if Saddam gives Annan a written promise to comply with the inspections.

"If he would comply . . . and if he really is willing this time to cooperate and not continue to deceive and delay, that (lifting the sanctions) could be done in the fairly near future," Cook said on British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The talks began after Annan arrived Friday in a visit seen as a last-ditch attempt to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Previous sticking points had included the composition of teams that would inspect the sites. France and Russia have proposed that diplomats accompany inspectors from the U.N. Special Commission, which is in charge of the inspections.

Television footage showed Annan greeting Saddam, who was dressed in a dark, double-breasted suit, and Aziz, who wore a military uniform.

Annan and his eight-member team negotiated with Iraqi officials around the clock Saturday in a series of meetings that ended at 2 a.m. The talks resumed later Sunday morning at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. After that, Annan met Saddam.

Later, as Annan returned to the pink stucco villa where he is staying, reporters asked whether a deal had been reached. He did not comment, but an aide, Ahmed Fawzi, flashed a V-for-victory sign.

In a commentary Sunday, the newspaper Al-Thawra, which reflects the thinking of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, called the demand for unrestricted access "illogical and unrealistic."

Iraq maintains that granting such access to the very homes of the president trample on its dignity and national sovereignty.

Baghdad also says it has destroyed the proscribed weapons.