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Russia Promises to Help U.S. Seek End to Iraqi Standoff

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

With a promise of help from Russia, the United States turned toward diplomacy Monday for a resolution of the tense standoff between Iraq and the United Nations.

The key player in the initiative seemed to be Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister and Arabist who enjoys a longstanding relationship with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Diplomats in several capitals, and in the party that arrived here Monday with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, indicated the Clinton administration has encouraged Russia, France and its Arab allies to intervene with Baghdad - and that Primakov, because of his experience, seemed to have the best chance of getting a hearing.

While the Clinton administration continues to insist it will not negotiate with Iraq, Primakov apparently planned to carry to Baghdad suggestions for resumption of weapons inspections under slightly different terms and a modification of U.N. economic sanctions to allow more food and medicine into Iraq.

In a whirlwind weekend tour of Iraq's Persian Gulf neighbors, Albright heard that even the Arab countries most threatened by Iraq's weapons program prefer such a negotiated settlement to military action. They supported the U.S. strategy of combining intense diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi government, with a show of force to signal what could happen if it refuses to allow weapons inspections to resume.

President Clinton, traveling in the United States, telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from Air Force One to discuss "ways to continue efforts searching for a diplomatic solution to the situation," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart reported. Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Arab world, has been at the forefront of those simultaneously urging Iraqi compliance with U.N. sanctions and a diplomatic rather than military solution to the showdown.

"I'm trying to settle this issue peacefully. But our diplomatic efforts must be backed by our strong military capability. We cannot rule out any option ," Clinton said while touring an aircraft plant in Wichita, Kan. "It is essential that those inspectors go back to work. The safety of the children of the world depends on it."

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally that after Kuwait would be most vulnerable to Iraqi attack, issued a statement Monday after Albright's visit expressing "satisfaction at the collective desire to give diplomatic efforts every chance to resolve the present crisis peacefully."

A Western diplomat in Moscow said Russia is engaged in "serious diplomacy" to resolve the Iraq crisis but added, "The effectiveness is still an open question." Albright has spoken to Primakov several times in recent days, he added.

Primakov has often argued, in past conflicts with Iraq, that Moscow can be a useful intermediary with Saddam. "We're doing everything we can to bring this crisis out onto the path of peaceful political settlement," he told reporters in Moscow, "taking into account the necessity of restoring the functioning of the special commission, and at the same time the improvement of the work of this special commission, so that for Iraq, the light at the end of the tunnel could, as they say, be visible."

From public statements and briefings Monday, it appeared Saddam is prepared to recognize he miscalculated when he ordered the expulsion of American members of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) teams searching Iraq for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The official Iraqi News Agency said that at a meeting of Saddam and his cabinet, "the letters sent to the president from his brother Arab presidents and monarchs were reviewed." Since all Arab leaders who have spoken publicly have urged a peaceful solution, that was taken as a signal of Iraq's thinking.

But Nizar Hamdoon, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, said proposals centering on the oil-for-food deal are a "non-starter in trying to resolve the current crisis." He said Iraq wants to explain its position and "work out a quick lifting of sanctions."

"We are always ready to listen," he said at the United Nations. "But up to this moment I don't see any substantive initiative that is addressing the Iraqi concerns."

Iraq last week offered to permit inspections to resume provided the teams more closely reflect the nationalities of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Iraq has complained that U.S. inspectors disproportionately make up the teams that enter Iraq and probe for violations of the ban on weapons of mass destruction imposed at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.