Four days before Kofi Annan flew to Iraq, as war clouds gathered, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright quietly flew to New York to tell him that the Clinton administration insisted on "red lines," or non-negotiable demands, for any settlement with Saddam Hussein.
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It was essential that the U.N. special commission, which Saddam had prevented from inspecting some of Iraq's suspect arms sites, decide where and when to conduct its operations. And it was essential that Richard Butler, the commission chairman, be in charge of reporting the findings to the Security Council.
At the meeting, first reported in The New York Times, Albright also urged Annan to deliver the chilling message that failure to comply with the U.N. resolutions that authorized weapons searches would bring "the severest consequences," said a senior U.S. official familiar with Albright's Feb. 15 mission to Sutton Place.
"He heard her out on the guidelines," but Annan deferred a direct reply until he could confer also with other Security Council members, said the official, who provided the account only on condition of anonymity.
While the United States, with solid support from Britain, had taken the toughest stance on Iraq's probable concealment of biological and chemical weapons ingredients, Russia, France, and China also objected to the restraints Iraq had imposed on Butler's commission.
The agreement Annan reached with Saddam produced a pledge to open some of the sites that had not been inspected before, but the accord was laced also with concessions.
They included the participation of diplomats in searches of so-called presidential sites, recognition of the painful burden of U.N. economic sanctions on the Iraqi people, and an affirmation of Iraq's sovereignty and dignity.
The compromise negotiated by Annan contained ambiguities, including the exact role of the diplomats, whose presence carries the potential for tipping off Iraq about searches in advance.
But Albright told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday that the U.N. monitors, not the diplomats, would be in charge of the inspections. Still, the senior official told The Associated Press "the ambiguities need to be clarified, we need to be sure the UNSCOM [U.N. special commission] process is still in charge."
"The logic of the administration's position presented to the secretary general is simple," the official said. "First of all, we want to combat weapons of mass destruction, and the best way is to get the inspectors back to work with complete access and Iraq's cooperation."
If that fails, the official went on, the support the Clinton administration had during the crisis for bombing Iraq will be enhanced and improved.
"We are better off either way," he said.
Meanwhile, James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, dismissed as "certainly wrong" critics of the administration's policies who say Saddam Hussein emerged the winner.
"If he implements the agreement, he will have allowed access that he has refused to allow, he will be complying where he refused to comply," Rubin said. "If he reverses course again, that will be apparent to everyone."
Written by Barry Schweid, AP Diplomatic Writer
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