- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

NEW YORK An Iraqi delegation set out for New York yesterday for two days of meetings that could lead to a revision of decade-old sanctions on their country and ultimately a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections.
"We are going to start Round One… . We think this will be a long process," said the head of the delegation, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Sa'eed al-Sahhaf.
He told reporters in Baghdad that "the dialogue between Iraq and the secretary-general is going to be without any precondition," such as the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, who were expelled after U.S.-led air strikes in December 1998.
The Iraqis arrive tomorrow night and will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other U.N. officials on Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a British delegation is in Washington today to begin discussions on how to focus the sanctions program better in advance of Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to the White House tomorrow.
But U.N. officials and Western diplomats who are eager to see the return of U.N. weapons inspectors after a two-year absence had been playing down the likelihood of an early agreement with the Iraqis even before last week's U.S. and British air strikes around Baghdad.
"I don't think we are going to have a miraculous breakthrough, but at least it is a beginning," Mr. Annan said Tuesday, acknowledging that the bombing had made the timing of the talks "a bit awkward."
Foreign diplomats are still debating the likely impact of the air strikes and trying to determine whether they signal renewed U.S. attention to Iraq and the start of a tougher policy under the Bush administration.
A great number of foreign governments, including Arab and European allies, have denounced the air strikes as unnecessary or unconscionable.
Many are also questioning the legitimacy of the "no fly" zones patrolled by American and British planes to keep Iraq's military from harassing the Kurds to the north and rebellious Shiite Muslims in the south.
But others say that until the administration's U.N. ambassador shows up and more government appointments are made, it's too soon to know what to expect from the son of the president who ordered the Gulf war a decade ago.
During his visit to the United Nations last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated a willingness to consider what are being widely described as "smart sanctions," while stressing the administration's desire to see the weapons inspectors return.
"We're looking at ways to make it possible for us to be assured that there are no weapons of mass destruction and there are no programs under way that would produce weapons of mass destruction," he said, adding that Washington would not attempt to modify existing Security Council resolutions.
The phrase "smart sanctions," frequently heard from British and other diplomats recently, refers to the idea of focusing the sanctions on a list of prohibited materials related to Iraqi's pursuit or use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Iraq would be allowed to purchase items not on that list such as food, medicine and materials to repair it's badly depleted infrastructure with funds from a U.N.-controlled account without approval from the U.N. sanctions committee that now oversees all spending requests.
However, there are still vast differences between the United States and Britain, on one side, and Russia, China and France on the other, over what is "dual use" technology capable of being turned to sinister purposes.
U.S. and British officials will discuss in Washington today how better to focus the sanctions program in the face of eroding support in Europe and the Middle East.
Even the Iraqis acknowledge they are exporting oil outside U.N. channels and are bringing in millions of dollars that cannot be accounted for.
"It's frustrating when people say 'soften' or 'toughen' the sanctions," said one British official. "It's irrelevant … if you seek a system that will work effectively."
She said the Bush administration was not yet in complete accord on how to proceed, with the State Department showing more flexibility so far than the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Monitoring, Observation and Verification Commission (Unmovic) continues to hire and train inspectors to be ready if and when Baghdad agrees to work with them.
Executive Chairman Hans Blix was in Vienna yesterday, briefing the group's international panel of supervisors on their activities to date. Unmovic replaces the U.N. Special Commission (Unscom), which was effectively sidelined after the Clinton administration's bombing effort in 1998.

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