WASHINGTON -- Turning a significant corner in its dealings with Iraq, the United Nations Security Council yesterday began discussing a French plan that calls for a lifting of the 8-year-old oil embargo and an easing of weapons inspections.
The United States and Britain repeated their opposition to lifting sanctions unless Iraq disarms and discloses its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. But State Department spokesman James P. Rubin made clear that the French plan could serve as the basis for developing a new U.N. approach to Iraq.
While the proposal "has some areas where we have some concerns and some questions," Rubin said, "we see some positive elements because it gets at the problem of ensuring there is an inspection and monitoring [system] and ensuring that the [Iraqi] regime does not misuse resources in order to rearm or reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction."
While France and Russia have pressed in the past for an easing of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, this is the first time such ideas have been packaged in a proposal that the whole Security Council took seriously.
"This is a big, serious proposal," said a U.N. diplomat.
It comes as the United States and Britain find themselves increasingly isolated in their determination to maintain sanctions until all the secrets of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are exposed.
The whole system for uncovering Iraqi weapons programs is now in limbo.
Baghdad barred weapons inspectors from returning to Iraq after four days of missile and bombing attacks by the United States and Britain in mid-December. The inspectors are part of the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM.
The United States maintained military pressure on Iraq yesterday, with U.S. warplanes striking air defense sites in northern Iraq for the third straight day.
The Pentagon said U.S. planes attacked surface-to-air missile sites in northern Iraq's "no-fly zone" after being fired on by Iraqi batteries.
"There's a credible and robust threat of force in the region if we determine that that needs to be used," Lockhart said, referring to U.S. land- and sea-based air power in the Persian Gulf area.
From the U.S. standpoint, the most serious flaw in the French proposal is that it would reward Iraq with a lifting of the oil embargo even though Baghdad continues to defy a series of U.N. resolutions dating from the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The French also abandon the idea of trying to get to the bottom of past Iraqi weapons programs, something that brought UNSCOM into repeated confrontation with Iraq.
"After seven years of UNSCOM and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) control and disarmament activities, the recent bombings may have weakened the Iraqi military potential but they have also created a new situation which renders further investigations [of] past programs almost impossible," the French proposal says.
France instead calls for a "preventive" system to stop Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction and rearming.
The plan makes no mention of UNSCOM. Rather, it refers to a "renewed control commission" that would have an increased staff and budget and "extended rights of access and investigation," including surprise inspections.
France also calls for "physical controls on the borders" to prevent Iraq from obtaining important goods with military uses.
Saying the oil embargo "has no more raison d'etre," the French would lift it, with the understanding that none of the revenue could be used for military purposes. Iraq would notify the United Nations of each oil contract, and some of the money would go for war compensation and the new weapons-monitoring plan.
A senior U.S. official said the United States was prepared to consider the French proposal because the December bombing had degraded Iraq's capability and had demonstrated that the United States was prepared to use military force to prevent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from posing a threat to the region.
"It's being considered and discussed in a new policy context," the official said. He also acknowledged that it was unlikely that UNSCOM could resume its intrusive inspections.
While refusing to lift the oil embargo, Rubin said, the United States would explore new ways for Iraqi oil revenue to be used to supply food and medicine to the Iraqi people.
Iraq is allowed to sell $10 billion worth of oil annually and use the bulk of the revenue for food and medicine. But officials say Baghdad has failed to buy and distribute all the medicine to which it's entitled.
Pub Date: 1/14/99