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Russia's Diplomacy Dismissed by Iraq and Western Officials

By Vanora Bennett and Craig Turner
Los Angeles Times

Russia claimed credit Monday for a break in the international standoff with Iraq, asserting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had agreed to a compromise that would let outsiders into some now-closed "presidential palaces" and possibly avert the growing threat of an American military strike to force Iraq's compliance with a post-Persian Gulf war disarmament regime.

But no sooner had the Kremlin publicized its diplomacy than American and U.N. officials called it insufficient and no real solution.

And Baghdad then denied that it had reached any deals with Moscow.

Monday's confusion occurred even as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Saudi Arabian leaders in hopes of securing more regional support for the tough American stance on Iraq and as U.N. officials considered ways to offer ordinary Iraqis more humanitarian aid.

The Russians, who have resisted the possibility of U.S. air strikes to try to compel Hussein to give U.N. inspectors unfettered access to sites where weapons of mass destruction may be manufactured or stored, asserted via the semi-official Itar-Tass news agency that the Iraqi leader was now ready to meet Richard Butler, the world body's chief weapons inspector.

They said Hussein had also agreed to designate up to eight presidential sites for U.N. weapons inspections. But the inspectors who would be allowed into these sites would go as representatives of their governments, not the United Nations, and they would be accompanied by diplomatic officials.

The Tass dispatch followed a meeting between Hussein and Viktor Posuvalyuk, Russia's deputy foreign minister and a former ambassador to Iraq.

The Kremlin - which had won international praise last fall for brokering an end to a standoff with Baghdad, which then had ejected U.N. inspections teams, claiming they had too many Americans on them - was triumphant at what it said was Hussein's latest, though limited, concession. "As a result of Russian diplomatic efforts, a clear shift has become noticeable in the Iraqi leadership's position, which provides a graphic illustration of the correctness of Russia's stance," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Boris N. Yeltsin's press secretary, told Tass.

Yeltsin later discussed Moscow's diplomatic efforts with President Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac.

In their 20-minute conversation, Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi standoff remained the preferable course. Clinton made the case that Iraq's continued defiance of the U.N. inspection teams is unacceptable, and Yeltsin concurred. They agreed to stay in close touch in coming days.

But no sooner had the Kremlin detailed its view of the situation and made public its announcement about an Iraqi deal, other U.S. officials expressed their doubts.

"Having kind of piecemeal inspections by groups (of diplomats and non-U.N. personnel) does not strike me as meeting the basic standard we have been talking about for so long," Albright said after meeting with the Saudis.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen dismissed the Moscow-Baghdad proposal, saying, "While it's something that we should look at, I don't think it's a solution."

At the United Nations, officials also noted that the plan failed to meet Security Council demands that Iraq provide unconditional access to any site designated for inspection, including presidential compounds.

Then, Riyad Kaisi, the Iraqi deputy foreign minister, later Monday told reporters in Baghdad that the Tass report of a deal was "totally, totally incorrect." He said "no such thing was discussed" in Posuvalyuk's meeting with Hussein.

U.S. officials insist the international community must act because Iraq continues to balk at letting U.N. inspectors destroy the Iraqi regime's chemical and biological warfare capabilities. U.N. inspectors must certify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before the international community will lift its punishing trade embargoes on Iraq.

In New York on Monday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed to the Security Council a major expansion of humanitarian aid to Iraqis suffering under sanctions and urged there be "no linkage" between the assistance and the impasse over weapons inspectors.

His report recommended an increase in the program, first approved in December 1996, that permits Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to be used for food and medicine distributed under U.N. supervision.