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Iraq Finds Opportune Time to Spark Showdown Over Sanctions

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times

On the eighth anniversary of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq appears determined this week to provoke yet another confrontation with the West over U.N. efforts to rid Baghdad of its deadliest weapons.

Clinton administration officials have long predicted a new showdown as part of President Saddam Hussein's long-running effort to erode the international consensus backing tough economic sanctions against his regime. But the U.S. officials had not expected the trouble to start until this fall, closer to the semiannual review of the sanctions that the United Nations is scheduled to conduct in October.

Hussein, however, may have accelerated his timetable to take advantage of the Clinton administration's preoccupation with domestic scandal and its sagging status in the Middle East because of the long-deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, U.S. analysts say.

In the latest development, Iraq surprised both U.S. and U.N. officials Monday by balking at a plan that, ironically, would have expedited the lifting of sanctions. It would have required Baghdad to move up the schedule for handing over the last and potentially most sensitive data on its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

On the first day of talks on the plan, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz instead demanded that chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler certify that his work was complete and that Baghdad had eliminated its entire stock of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.

The diplomatic skirmish also comes as European allies are focused on recent fighting in the Yugoslav region of Kosovo - and whether NATO should get involved in it.

"It's classic for Saddam to play to half a dozen different crises. The kinds of crises going on now, like last year, give him reason to think there is a distraction," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

The United States took a firm stand. "We'll let the facts speak for themselves," a senior U.S. official said. "Iraq's obligations are clear. The burden of proof is on the Iraqis, not the U.N." to show it has met the requirements for lifting sanctions.