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Nizar Hamdoon: Iraq's Super-Salesman at the U.N.


New York. -- Nizar Hamdoon is back, but his style is crimped.

During the mid-1980s, a period he calls "the golden Iraqi-American age," Baghdad's envoy to the United States cut a wide swath in and out of Washington. The embrace of an oil-rich dictatorship and a democratic superpower was aimed at restraining Iran, then the region's No. 1 threat to U.S. oil supplies.

Now, a defeated but still defiant Iraq is the regional pariah, and Mr. Hamdoon, its ambassador to the United Nations, has the clearly frustrating task of trying to win back a measure of acceptance.

A dark Lincoln waits outside the Iraqi mission here, a town house on East 79th Street off Fifth Avenue, but it doesn't take him far. His movements are restricted to New York City's five boroughs as a result of Baghdad's cutoff of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Past the double-entry security, the mansion has a down-at-the heels look, with a couple of plaster patches visible on an old wall, a clock that appears to have stopped and a tiny, ancient elevator.

The evident decay is an apt metaphor for Mr. Hamdoon's current, overriding objective: getting the United Nations to lift the economic sanctions, imposed after Iraq seized Kuwait in August, 1990, that have cut off Iraqi trade and oil sales, hobbled its economy and embittered its people.

To make his case, he cites the spread of radical Islamic movements and the re-emergence of Iran as a regional threat, arguing that Iraq's continued weakness has hurt, rather than helped, stability in the region.

Many Arab governments, he said, are "very much threatened by internal factors, by extremist factors within their own countries. This is what we are trying to attract the attention of the international community to, that weakening Iraq is not going to serve any of those interests of the big powers.

"On the contrary, the weakening of Iraq can only draw into that vacuum more aggressive powers and forces which will eventually have an impact on the political order of the region."

If anyone could succeed with this argument, it is probably Mr. Hamdoon, 48, a suave diplomat with a reputation for being discreet -- so much so that, departing from U.N. practice, he attends even crucial meetings with ambassadors from major powers alone, without a note-taker.

Mr. Hamdoon, who replaced the gentlemanly Abdul-Amir al-Anbari last August, displays at times the hard edge of someone who has built a career in Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. But he is also seen as better plugged into events in Baghdad.

"What you get is more or less the party line," said a Western diplomat. Adds an Arab colleague: "He has a reputation as a man who kept his word. The things he couldn't deliver, he didn't promise."

But so far, largely isolated and facing a united front by the United States, Britain and France, Mr. Hamdoon's image of effectiveness has been challenged by one setback after another.

In January, he received the 48-hour ultimatum from the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition to remove its surface-to-air missiles from a no-fly-zone in southern Iraq, a prelude to renewed allied bombing.

Last month, he was summoned by the Security Council president for a dressing-down following an incident in which, U.N. inspectors say, Iraqi guns were pointed at inspectors' helicopters during a search for missile equipment.

And this month, reports surfaced of renewed Iraqi assaults on the Shiite population of Southern Iraq. While not confirming them, the State Department said Iraq continues to launch small-scale military attacks in the region, violating a post-Gulf war resolution requiring a halt in repression.

Even Mr. Hamdoon's effort to weaken sanctions around the edges, for instance by restoring commercial transactions to rebuild Iraq's telephone system, have made little progress.

"Every time he tries, something foolish is done by Baghdad that hamstrings him again," says Richard Murphy, who got to know the envoy while the Reagan administration's top Mideast official. "It's not easy to have a charm offensive in Baghdad. It doesn't come naturally."

Perhaps not, but it seemed to during Mr. Hamdoon's tour in Washington. In an interview recently, the plump, shrewd-eyed envoy eased up on his guarded answers to sound nostalgic about the lost relationship.

"Iraq was one of the few countries in the Arab world that was ready to deal with the United States from strength rather than from weakness, but also based on mutual interest," he said.

Midway through its eight-year war against the Tehran regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iraq was "defending the political order" at a time when "all the sheikdoms of the Gulf were shaken by Iranian fundamentalism."

pTC Mr. Hamdoon, a Muslim who attended a Jesuit high school and later studied architecture, moved easily through a range of Washington settings, developing a network of contacts second only, among Arab states, to that of Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

With accented but polished English, he conversed with U.S. officials on Iranian military movements and mingled with a broader circle of diplomats, members of Congress and journalists.

"He played that role like a maestro," recalls Mr. Murphy.

Reaching out to the Jewish community and beyond the Capital Beltway, he traveled widely, speaking at university campuses and working at "the grass-roots level" to boost Iraq's image.

Laurie Mylroie, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was among those at the time who believed that "Iraq had a plausible case." But while the Iraq-Iran standoff was seen ++ then as protecting Western oil interests, "now the U.S. is protecting the oil," she says.

Mr. Hamdoon's contacts these days are less expansive and involve considerable time with the U.N. Special Commission, which suspects Iraq of continuing to harbor plans of restoring its program of weapons of mass destruction and, eventually, becoming a nuclear power.

In an interview, he insists Iraq is doing all it can to comply with the United Nations and can't do more without at least a promise to lift the sanctions or reward Iraqi cooperation.

"There is nothing more that Iraq could do to facilitate all the inspections or the missions. They go to Baghdad, and they fly wherever they want, and they inspect whatever sites they want."

Against the U.N. demand that inspectors' helicopters be able to fly wherever they need to go, he repeats Baghdad's refusal.

"What they want to photograph [they] are photographing either by satellite or by U2. I think the U2 could provide them with the best quality of photographs. Nobody has questioned that. They also have physical access to all the places in Baghdad, all the spots in Baghdad. So I don't see any reason why the helicopters should fly in the city, which could cause panic and uneasy feelings within the population."

He waves off periodic claims to Kuwaiti territory in Iraq's controlled press.

"That is in the Iraqi media. That has to do with reactions to certain statements by some Kuwaitis and by some others, again under the continuation of the embargo, people are squeezed, people are hurting. So you expect that from time to time. . . . But officially Iraq has considered the whole Kuwaiti chapter closed."

The invasion, he says, stemmed from a belief that Kuwait was conspiring to weaken Iraq economically and from a Western media campaign that demonized Mr. Hussein.

For the United States and its European and Gulf allies, the assault on Kuwait remains proof positive of Iraq's aggressive intentions, and none is moving to reopen a dialogue with Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, returning from his trip through the Mideast, said he had assured Gulf allies the U.S. would "stay the course."

More than the Bush administration, the Clinton team stresses not only Iraq's affronts to weapons inspections, but its internal repression in southern Iraq and the northern Kurdish region.

But Mr. Hamdoon refuses to accept such statements as the last word.

"I think it's premature to judge the American policy on Iraq in the new administration," Mr. Hamdoon says. President Clinton's promise to judge Iraq on its behavior "is something that we admire, and we think the best way to establish foreign policy for a country is to rely on facts rather than prejudice, on stories that become now part of the past.

"So we look forward to the time when President Clinton and his group will be ready or be able because of the time that's needed to review or reconsider to have a fresh start with Iraq. We have to give them some time to do that, some extra time."

Mark Matthews is the diplomatic correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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