The Iraqi Crisis: February 14 - Judgement Day?

"Ninety minutes that did not shake the world." This phrase could well be used to sum up US Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the UN Security Council on Wednesday. Powell brought proof in the form of audio-recordings, intercepted radio transmissions, slides and other visual aides, that Iraq had violated UN Security Council resolution 1441. The US Secretary of State was supposed to convince Council members and the international community that Iraq could only be dealt with by force. However, he did not manage to sway the Security Council members.

The head of the UN monitoring commission (UNMOVIC), Hans Blix, who is checking Iraq in the name of the international community, has already said that the majority of the evidence about Iraq's guilt presented by Powell was "circumstantial." On the other hand, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stressed that the Security Council session had shown that war could be avoided. The general conclusion drawn after the session was that all the information presented by the US had to be studied and checked thoroughly by the inspectors in Iraq and, consequently, inspections should be continued. Accordingly, the next Security Council session scheduled for February 14th should be decisive. Powell's accusations against Iraq must be either proved or disproved.

However, the US claims with regard to Iraq in many ways coincide with those made by the inspectors working in the country. Iraq complains that the USA is trying to drive a wedge between Baghdad and the inspectors. However, prior to Powell's report, the latter had said that the Iraqi leadership had not actively co-operated with them. To some extent, the Iraqis only have themselves to blame, as they have allowed the USA to make these charges. They should not respond to the accusations, but let them guide their actions.

Before Powell made his speech to the UN, Blix had asked the Iraqi leadership to provide him with information missing from the long Iraqi dossier given to the UN Security Council on December 7th. In particular, he wanted information concerning the destruction of weapons of mass destruction. Blix had also hoped that Iraq would give a detailed account about its possession of VX gas and anthrax strains, that the country's leadership would agree to flights of U2 planes over its territory and that it would back the possibility of interviewing scientists without government officials being present. Blix is counting on being given an answer to these points this weekend, when he and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El-Baradei, visit Baghdad.

According to Blix, the forthcoming meeting will give the Iraqis the opportunity to present evidence that they have destroyed banned items and ended prohibited programmes. The UNMOVIC head stressed that Iraq had to "give us hope." To a certain degree, Powell is right that the burden of responsibility lies with Iraq and not the inspectors to prove that the country has nothing to hide. Every member of the Security Council agrees with this. During the Council's debate, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that Iraq should be the first country interested in clarifying the issue of whether or not it possessed weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery.

Accordingly, what will be Baghdad's next move? The Iraqi leadership has already denied that it has refused to allow reconnaissance flights over the country. The Iraqis are only asking that the allies stop their patrols in the no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq while the U2s are in the air. It cannot be ruled out that this issue will be resolved during Blix and El-Baradei's visit.

It is possible that, in light of Powell's UN report, they could also discuss the matter of extending the scope of the inspections. Two permanent Security Council members, France and Russia, made proposals to this effect.

The UN is anxiously waiting for Blix and El-Baradei to return from Baghdad. If Blix announces that Baghdad is as inactive as before, then even the most vociferous opponents of war and advocates of continuing the inspections will find their hands tied. Accordingly, the Iraqi issue will only have to wait until the new date of February 14th. The US leadership is also waiting for Blix. The US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said live on CNN that the USA believes that Blix's February 14th report will show again whether or not Saddam Hussein is trying to comply with resolution 1441. However, Rice stressed that every decision taken by the UN Security Council could not be delaying tactics.

According to Rice, George Bush's administration so far considers the situation around Iraq to be in the diplomatic phase. Serious, one could say even unexpected steps, will have to be taken by Saddam Hussein if the military phase is to be avoided. The problem is only that the USA will either be pleased with his removal from power, which is unlikely, or that Iraq will admit to the fact that it has weapons of mass destruction, which is also difficult to believe.

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