The United Nations confirmed Saturday, April 14, that it had postponed a second round of high-level talks with Iraq, but said it was in touch with Baghdad about rescheduling them.
The official Iraqi press had accused UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of caving in to US pressure to delay the talks, which had been expected to take place in early May.
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said Annan learned at a lunch with the 15-member Security Council this week that "some members of the council were still studying the papers presented by Iraq at the first meeting," held on February 26 and 27.
At that meeting, the Iraqi delegation, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Said Al-Sahhaf, presented Annan with half a dozen long papers setting out Baghdad's grievances over the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
The Security Council has resolved that the sanctions cannot be removed until Iraq satisfies the UN that it has eliminated all its weapons of mass destruction. Council members are deeply split, however, over how to get Iraq to cooperate and allow UN arms inspectors back into the country.
"The council members are not expected to complete their policy reviews on Iraq by the end of May," Eckhard said. "The secretary general continues to be in touch with Iraq concerning the dates for the second round of talks," he added.
The administration of US President George W. Bush has said it wants to sharpen the focus of the sanctions, so as to put pressure on top officials rather than on Iraq's 22 million people, whose standard of living and health have collapsed over the past decade.
Other council members, notably France and Russia, want to find ways of giving Iraq an incentive to cooperate on disarmament, and to quickly suspend the sanctions. The UN arms inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, on the eve of a bombing campaign by US and British warplanes, and Baghdad has said they will never be let back.
Eckhard declined to comment on remarks by Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan that the delay "does not upset Iraq ... which does not expect much from such dialogue.” Ramadan told reporters at the opening of a trade fair in Baghdad that Iraq had agreed to the talks with Annan "so that it could not be said that Iraq had missed an opportunity."
His comments contrasted with remarks made by Sahhaf after the February meeting, the first high-level contact with the UN since 1998. The foreign minister told reporters the talks had been "objective" and had gone smoothly. "We have to continue building this dialogue because it is not an aim in itself," he said. "It is a vehicle for something, namely to find a way out, a solution which we consider reasonable."
Diplomats here said no progress was made on substantive questions at the first meeting, when the Iraqis struck a very hard line, seemingly as an initial bargaining position.
They said Sahhaf apparently did not have the authority to go beyond detailing Iraq's grievances and respond to Annan's request for positive suggestions to break the impasse over arms inspections.
The diplomats also recalled that Annan's previous efforts to negotiate with Baghdad — over an earlier break in arms inspections in mid 1998 — ended in failure when the United States decided to bomb Iraq into compliance with Security Council resolutions. "The secretary general ended up with egg on his face and he is unlikely to engage Iraq again without a united council behind him," they said. — (AFP, UN)
by Robert Holloway
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)