UN Return Only Delays Iraqi Crisis

LONDON -- The return of UN arms inspectors to Iraq on Friday after a 23-day standoff may only postpone a crisis between President Saddam Hussein and the United States for a few weeks or months, diplomats and analysts say.

They doubt that Saddam will be any more willing than before to cooperate with the disarmament teams hunting for the remains of his chemical and biological weapons program, which Iraq officially says no longer exist.

Since Washington seems no more inclined than before to offer any prospect of an eventual lifting of sanctions on Baghdad, nor to acknowledge progress Iraq has made toward disarmament, the stage seems set for another confrontation in the near future.

"This may have been the best solution, because Iraq has not got away with defying the international community, but it doesn't really solve anything," said a former arms inspector.

"I can't imagine Saddam is now going to open the doors of the presidential buildings, Republican Guard bases and intelligence headquarters which the inspectors have been trying to enter for months," he said.

If the inspectors return to the same cat-and-mouse game, the same obstruction and intimidation or, in Iraq's eyes, the same intrusion and attempts at espionage, the next clash cannot be far off.

"The crisis is not over yet because the issue of whether the inspectors can get full access remains," said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East program at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"But those who argued that there has to be light at the end of the tunnel for the Iraqis to cooperate with the UN arms inspectors would appear to have been heard in the way the crisis is being resolved," she said.

Yet Russia and France are unlikely to find the United States more amenable to rewarding Iraq for partial progress or offering an end to the oil embargo if it complies fully with the disarmament clauses of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire resolution.

Moscow is bound to use its diplomatic victory in coaxing Iraq into reversing the expulsion of the UN inspectors to demand such a move, with French backing. Both countries are owed billions of dollars by Baghdad and are keen to get some money back through Iraqi oil sales.

But beyond accepting a few more non-American inspectors or letting Baghdad sell a few more barrels of oil, the United States is clearly in no mood to change policy on Iraq.

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland pointed to an unresolved contradiction in the Clinton administration's policy towards Baghdad.

"Three weeks ago, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were routinely described by U.S. official statements as being tightly contained in a box of American making. This week, President Clinton said Iraq presents a threat to 'the safety of the children of the world' that must be dealt with urgently," he wrote. "That transformation raises a fundamental question for Americans to put to their government: Were you fooling us then, or are you fooling us now?"

Hollis said Washington had apparently concluded for now that renewed military action would be on balance harmful to its wider Middle East interests and too unlikely to succeed.

"It seems to me that they are still holding out for a coup d'etat against Saddam," she said.