Countdown begins for Saddam
Saddam Hussein has been given one last chance to give up Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or suffer “serious consequences”. After eight weeks of frantic negotiations, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a tough new resolution on November 8th. This sets out a strict timetable for Mr Hussein to comply. With the clock ticking, any further obstruction, prevarication or evidence of hidden arsenals will now almost certainly result in an invasion. With not a single abstention or vote against, President George Bush has finally forced the UN to get tough.
Iraq now has until November 15th to accept the terms and promise to comply. An advance team of the UN’s weapons inspectors plans to go to Iraq on November 18th and the first spot checks on suspected sites could begin shortly afterwards.
Last-minute changes to the text of the resolution eventually satisfied the concerns raised by other countries, including France, which had led objections to previous drafts. In the end, even Syria, the only Arab member on the Security Council, voted for the resolution after its request for a delay was refused. Despite continued doubts, Syria said it wanted to preserve unity in the Security Council and that it had been given assurances the resolution would not be used as pretext to attack Iraq.
Mr Bush welcomed the result and gave warning that Iraq must co-operate. “If we are to avert war, all nations must continue to pressure Saddam Hussein to accept this resolution and comply with his obligations,” Mr Bush said.
Kofi Annan, the UN’s Secretary General, urged the Iraqi leadership to agree to the terms of the resolution “for the sake of its own people and for the sake of world security”. The initial reaction from Iraq was not encouraging. “I am very pessimistic,” said Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN.
It was the vexed question of exactly who would determine when war could begin that had led to all the diplomatic back-and-forth. France, along with Russia, had been worried about “hidden triggers” that could be interpreted by America as giving it the authority to launch a strike unilaterally if Iraq puts a foot wrong. France and Russia wanted two resolutions: the first ordering Iraq to comply, and the second authorising the use of force if it does not.
The new resolution gives the Security Council a role in the decision to wage war. It says that serious violations would be reported to the council “for assessment”. That could lead to a new round of UN deliberations before military action is begun. American officials, however, continue to make it clear that they still regard the resolution to be all the authority Mr Bush needs to act against Iraq. America, they say, would consult other members of the Security Council, but would not feel it necessary to win their approval.
Mr Bush had insisted since September that the UN had to take a hard line with Iraq, or it would lose its credibility. With his mandate bolstered by the Republicans’ success in American mid-term elections and now by a unanimous vote in the Security Council, America’s efforts to find international support to force Iraq to disarm have been greatly boosted.
The Bush administration is growing impatient to get the inspection process under way, even though some American officials reckon that Iraq has had plenty of time to hide any evidence of its arms programmes. Iraq has agreed to let the inspectors back after a four-year absence, while continuing to deny that it has chemical or biological weapons, and that it is attempting to build nuclear arms.
Iraq had urged members of the Security Council to reject the resolution, describing it as “the law of evil”.
Mr Hussein has to make his move quickly. Under the timetable set by the resolution, Iraq has 30 days to declare all its programmes likely to involve weapons of mass destruction and any related materials—including anything that could have a dual civilian use.
The chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, is to update the Security Council after 60 days, although any Iraqi violations can be reported sooner. He will be joined in Iraq by a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The inspectors will have more power than they previously enjoyed in Iraq. They are to get unconditional and unrestricted access to any site they want to survey—including Mr Hussein’s vast presidential-palace complexes.
These have long been suspected as hiding places for weapons programmes, although equipment and stockpiles may well have been moved—some suspect into civilian buildings in towns and villages. The inspectors will also have the power to “freeze” any site they are suspicious about by declaring an exclusion area around it.
What Mr Hussein will make of these new pressures remains to be seen, but it is now abundantly clear that any false move will be considered by the Bush administration as a “further material breach” of Iraq’s obligations. With or without the UN’s approval, America will not want to delay the punishment: the best time for an attack on Iraq would be early next year, when there is less heat and dust to hamper ground troops. Mr Hussein will find that he has little room to wriggle now that the countdown has begun. —Economist