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Can This Deal Work?

To everyone's relief, Kofi Annan strikes a bargain in Baghdad. Will Saddam keep his word this time?

By Bruce W. Nelan

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 9) -- American warplanes were practicing bombing runs from their carriers in the Persian Gulf. In Baghdad the long-suffering citizens of Iraq were resigning themselves to yet another aerial whacking. In Washington, Bill Clinton was staring at a pair of unpleasant options: bomb and be damned, or back down and be ridiculed. If ever there was a call for high diplomacy, this was it.

On Friday, Feb. 20, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to the Iraqi capital aboard a Falcon 900 jet lent to him by French President Jacques Chirac. The deceptively soft-spoken Ghanaian listened for two days as the Iraqis pressed their position. On Sunday, Feb. 22, in the massive Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris River, he calmly closed a deal with Saddam Hussein. There would be no bombing, at least not now. There was a global sigh of relief.

Annan sped from the palace back to his guest house and briefed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by phone. But communications from Baghdad were scratchy, and the line probably had uninvited listeners. Washington's top officials got the encouraging word that Saddam had agreed to open all his buildings to arms-control inspectors, but Clinton and his team were wringing their hands about the details they didn't know.

During a stopover in Paris, Annan refused to fax the final seven-paragraph agreement to Washington, saying he wanted to present it formally to the whole Security Council. U.S. intelligence, however, came up with a bootleg copy of the agreement and delivered it to the White House early Monday. "As soon as we looked at it," says an official, "we knew where the problems were." It was not a vague compromise, as the U.S. had feared, nor had Saddam caved in completely.

Washington did not do badly. It is off the hook, at least for now, on its threat to bomb Iraq, a move that promised less than satisfying results and that was gathering opposition at home and abroad by the day. Clinton's bottom-line demands were preserved, as Saddam again accepted U.N. resolutions that mandate "unconditional and unrestricted" inspections and destruction of his bioweapons, nerve agents and missiles. This deal could fall apart--and many experienced experts assume it will--but matters had worked out better than the Clintonites had expected.

When, early last month, Paris and Moscow began pressing for a mission to Baghdad by Annan, Washington was opposed. All such a visit was likely to do, Washington thought, was isolate the U.S. and hobble its ability to carry out air strikes against the Iraqis if they continued to block U.N. arms inspectors.

But in recent weeks, political support for the bombing slipped sharply in the U.S. and in the Middle East, where there were few offers of bases and logistical backup for the Americans. Even at the Pentagon, bombing was losing its appeal as a nice, clean solution, since no one believed that the battle plan was sufficient to depose Saddam or destroy his hidden chemical and biological weapons. Washington faced the reality that Annan would have to try to work out something with Saddam. But Clinton wanted Annan to go to Baghdad hard-wired to broker only the kind of deal the President could accept.

Washington wanted to give Annan written negotiating instructions, but France and Russia were against it. Chirac wrote to Saddam suggesting a special procedure for palace inspections that would include diplomats along with the inspectors to show respect for Iraq's national dignity. In the jargon that was developing around the negotiations, the U.S. dubbed this French idea "UNSCOM plus"--the U.N. Special Commission with diplomats added.

At the White House, the ABC team--Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Defense Secretary William Cohen--met to lay down their "red lines," the basic no-no's for Annan's visit. In any agreement with Iraq, they wrote, there should be "no dilution" of UNSCOM's authority to conduct inspections. There should be "no subordination" of Richard Butler, the trusted executive chairman of UNSCOM, to any political interlopers. And nothing Annan might sign could block U.N. inspectors from "free and unfettered access" everywhere. Washington had decided that it could swallow UNSCOM-plus, provided tagalong diplomats did not get in the way of the real inspectors.

Albright flew to New York for lunch with Annan on Feb. 15 and went over a lengthy memo listing the red lines, including one that insisted anything he worked out with Iraq should be written out and signed. The Secretary-General argued successfully for more "wiggle room" and said the principles were acceptable to him if the Security Council approved them.

Clinton was still worried. The red lines were fine, but what if Saddam accepted them and later reneged again? Clinton wanted the five permanent members of the Security Council to agree in advance that if Iraq violated the deal, air strikes would follow. This was nicknamed "snapback." If Saddam breaks his pledge, explains a senior Clinton aide, "it snaps back and hits him with force."

Snapback, said Clinton, would have to be written into a Security Council resolution if Annan brought back a deal from Baghdad. And Clinton wanted the five permanent members to agree to that before Annan boarded his plane. The British, of course, were solidly with the U.S. France agreed to the red lines and to snapback. Then the Russians said they accepted. Albright phoned Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov in Moscow to make sure he understood what he was endorsing. Primakov said he did: if Saddam broke an agreement with the U.N., "Russia would change its position on the use of force." Now that a deal has been made, however, the definition of snapback is being revisited in the Security Council, and Paris and Moscow are fudging.

By the time he walked into Saddam's presence, Annan had worked his way through all the Iraqi objections except one: the demand for a time limit on inspections at presidential sites. Only the Iraqi leader could deal with that make-or-break item. Annan had been carefully briefed on how to handle the meeting: Saddam would talk, then stop and wait. The silences were important. Annan would have to be patient, sit and let Saddam talk. Then when Annan got his turn to speak, he must be forceful and convince Saddam that he had not come to be simply a mouthpiece for Washington. That is how it went, and after three hours, Annan had Saddam's agreement, which the Iraqis leaked so they could pose as benevolent peacemakers.

Saddam used the crisis with surprising skill to leap out of his isolation in the Arab world. Egypt and Qatar sent senior envoys to Baghdad to plead for peace, and Saddam boosted his standing with his gulf neighbors by seeming to choose diplomacy over adventurism. By letting in hordes of international journalists, he made sure they would show and tell the story of the Iraqi people suffering under U.N. sanctions.

The U.S. and Britain were worried about several specific provisions in the memorandum of understanding between the U.N. and Iraq. It was unclear who would supervise the Special Group, the UNSCOM-plus team, set up to inspect the palaces. The memo called for "specific detailed procedures" for the inspections, but didn't spell out the procedures. This could be trouble, offering the Iraqis any number of avenues for delaying and limiting inspections. But, asks a Clinton aide, "Do we go to war over who drives Butler's car into the palaces? No way."

The White House had a sinking feeling when it contemplated clauses that called on the U.N. to respect Iraq's "legitimate concerns relating to national security, sovereignty and dignity." This is diplomatic boilerplate that has been used in other Security Council documents, but in this context it could become another monkey wrench in Saddam's toolbox.

In New York City, Butler and senior UNSCOM officials were not happy when they first read over the memorandum. "There were procedures in Kofi's agreement that UNSCOM has worked to get rid of," says one. Adding diplomats, along with a political adviser reporting to Annan, inserted another layer into the chain of command and could make the hands-on work of the expert inspectors more difficult. Republicans on Capitol Hill were more outspoken, with Senators Trent Lott, Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft in full denunciation. Even Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd was "very uneasy about this agreement."

With skeptical reaction to the deal beginning to mount, Clinton phoned Annan, urging him to clarify the fuzzy patches in the document. The Secretary-General assured the President that the inspections would continue to be "an expert-driven process." The diplomats would not be taking over the job but simply going along and observing, Annan promised. All the inspectors would be experts from UNSCOM or the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Annan phoned Albright to repeat his assurances and to say that Butler, whom the Iraqis loathe because he will not tolerate their lies and evasions, is still "in charge." Just as important, a professional UNSCOM inspector would head the Special Group team that would actually search for weapons inside the palace compounds. Annan told Albright he had informed the Iraqis that, like it or not, they were "going to have to work with Butler."

The next day Butler gave a press conference to praise Annan and announce that he found the arrangements "quite satisfactory." The White House and State Department were mollified as well. "In the last 48 hours," said Albright, "some have jumped to conclusions about the agreement." Now, she said, "it will be very clear that those conclusions have turned out to be wrong."

Possibly, but there is one big blank in the picture. For all the patching up and reassuring he did with Washington, Annan never called the Iraqis last week to clarify anything with them. Everyone knows how Annan expects Iraq to live up to the agreement. But no one has checked with Baghdad about Saddam's reading of the memorandum.

Whatever Saddam may say, though, most Clinton Administration officials do not expect him to live up to the agreement. "Nobody thinks he's given up his determination to stonewall and keep his weapons," says a senior State Department aide. If that is correct, it will be a problem. The U.S. and Britain will be on the go-it-alone hook again. Russia and France have agreed to use the phrase "severest consequences" in a resolution, but at weeks end they, along with China, were still haggling over how quickly military attacks might follow any future Iraqi violation. "There are no grounds," says Primakov, for discussing military strikes against Iraq. To help shepherd some kind of resolution through the Council, Annan canceled a long-planned trip to Washington this week.

Saddam is a secretive, Stalinesque dictator, and even Iraqis are mystified by his decisions. Western experts can only speculate, but they suspect the next act may play out in one of two ways. In the first, Butler puts the eight presidential sites under continuous watch. He has never thought they were crammed with toxins and gas, but he does not want them available as quick-switch storage depots when he gets close to the hidden weapons. Butler's experts believe those are in offices of the Iraqi intelligence services and the Special Republican Guard complexes that Saddam also declared off limits. As UNSCOM closes in on them, U.S. officials expect Saddam to find some excuse to block the inspectors.

Then what? The U.S. has 28 warships, 356 planes and 33,000 troops on alert in the Persian Gulf area, costing about $100 million a month more than the U.S. was already spending on forces in the region. Clinton and Albright argue that by going this extra mile with Saddam, the U.S. will have more support the next time it calls for using force. Maybe so, now that Annan has added his prestige to a deal, but only if the world feels deeply cheated and is ready to punish Saddam.

Alternatively, if Saddam has truly turned from bombast to finesse, he could stand aside and let the inspectors do their job to the best of their ability. Either they will find some weaponry and destroy it, or they will find nothing, meaning Saddam's deception teams have used their time well and have concealed everything too effectively to be discovered. After a few months of rummaging by the inspectors, Saddam could insist that he has carried out his part of the bargain and demand that the inspectors leave and the sanctions against his suffering people be lifted. If he handles it smoothly, as he did Kofi Annan and U.N. diplomacy, it might work.

--Reported by William Dowell/U.N., Johanna McGeary/Baghdad, Thomas Sancton/Paris and Douglas Waller/Washington

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 9, 1998

Caught In The Town's Most Thankless Job
Everyone's Talking Trash
Can This Deal Work?
Uncovering Iraqi Intrigue
Dealing With Saddam
A Star Turn For The Peace Broker
What Asian Crisis?
Notebook: Bill Paxon Drops Out Of The Political Ring

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