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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 03:13 GMT
Iraq faces tough talks at UN
UN weapon inspectors in Baghdad in 1998
Pressure is mounting on Iraq over weapons inspections
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By Greg Barrow
BBC United Nations correspondent

The diplomatic and political landscape has undergone a radical upheaval since the last meeting between Iraqi Government officials and the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, more than a year ago.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri, will be all too aware of this as he decides on what strategy to pursue in his talks with Mr Annan on Thursday.

As far as the Secretary General is concerned, they will be talking about UN resolutions. The emphasis will be on implementation

Fred Eckhard, spokesman for Kofi Annan
Iraq has toyed with the UN and skilfully exploited divisions between members of the UN Security Council for the past 10 years, but now finds itself with far less room for manoeuvre.

For the first time in many years, the Iraqi Government is faced with a Security Council that appears more united on the issue of persuading Baghdad to begin implementing UN resolutions imposed at the end of the Gulf War.

As a start, the council wants to see a clear signal from Iraq that it is ready to allow UN weapons inspectors back in.

Alongside diplomatic pressure from the UN, there is the clear threat of military intervention from the United States if Baghdad continues to maintain and produce weapons of mass destruction.

Opening gambit

UN diplomats hope that this outside pressure will persuade the Iraqis of the need for a focussed discussion on the implementation of UN resolutions and the return of UN weapons inspectors.

Fred Eckhard, Kofi Annan's spokesman, said: "As far as the Secretary General is concerned, they will be talking about UN resolutions. The emphasis will be on implementation."

One western diplomat said the meeting with Mr Annan should be seen as the opening gambit in what might turn out to be a long series of negotiations.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri
The Iraqi delegation has less room for manoeuvre
"It is like the beginning of a dance around some very serious issues as far as the Iraqis are concerned," he said. "It could take months."

Overall, expectations ahead of this first meeting are low.

Both sides are expected to use it as an opportunity to put out feelers as to where future negotiations might lead.

Although the UN wants to see a positive gesture from the Iraqis regarding the return of weapons inspectors, that may be asking too much at this stage.

Some diplomats say that, at best, this meeting could turn out to be a springboard for follow-up discussions after the Arab League Summit in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, later this month.

US applies pressure

Diplomats have noted with interest that Mr Annan has invited the head of the UN weapons inspection team, Hans Blix, to participate in Thursday's meeting.

"Blix is there so he can explain to the Iraqis what it would mean to re-start weapons inspections," one western diplomat said.

The United States presented new evidence to a Security Council committee on Wednesday which purports to show how Baghdad has been flouting UN sanctions and developing its weapons capability.

Satellite photographs allegedly show that up to 1,000 trucks were imported by Iraq under the UN's oil-for-food programme for civilian purposes and were then modified to be used by the military.

Some diplomats have speculated that the evidence was deliberately released by the US just before the meeting between Mr Sabri and Kofi Annan to increase the pressure on the Iraqi delegation.

See also:

06 Mar 02 | Middle East
US accuses Iraq of arms violations
25 Feb 02 | Middle East
Annan to tackle Iraq over arms
07 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraq 'smart sanctions' postponed
30 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraq condemns US 'aggression'
28 Oct 01 | Middle East
Rumsfeld: Iraq may be target
19 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iraq
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