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S P E C I A L: The Standoff with Iraq

Butler to meet again with Iraqi officials

Latest developments:

January 19, 1998
Web posted at: 11:20 p.m. EST (0420 GMT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.N. weapons chief Richard Butler meets again Tuesday with Iraqi officials in another attempt to defuse a situation that has brought Iraq and the West closer to another confrontation.

Butler met for three hours Monday with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Oil Minister Lt. Gen. Amir Mohammed Rasheed but declined to comment after the meeting.

Witnesses said Butler and his deputy, Charles Duelfer, shook hands with Aziz and Rasheed before the start of the talks, despite recent tensions between the two camps. Butler is due to leave Iraq Wednesday and report to the United Nations Friday.

Butler, an Australian, is chairman of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), which is charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as one of the terms of the end of the Gulf War.

Until the U.N. is assured that Iraq no longer is a threat to its neighbors, it has imposed economic sanctions on the country.

But Iraq has blocked the work of UNSCOM inspectors at certain "sensitive sites," and the obstruction has led to an increase in international tension.

Another impasse occurred last week when Baghdad barred an inspection team led by former U.S. Marine officer Scott Ritter, accusing him of being a spy.

Butler pulled Ritter out of Iraq on Friday but said he might be called upon to carry out future inspections. Asked whether he intended to send Ritter back to Baghdad, Butler said: "Yes, it is conceivable."

Butler greeted by demonstrations

UNSCOM has said Iraq has made good progress towards closing its files on ballistic weapons, but that there are still gaps on chemical weapons and that Iraq has deliberately withheld information on its biological weapons program.

Butler's presence in Iraq comes just days after Iraq announced it was mobilizing 1 million volunteers to push for an end to sanctions.

President Saddam Hussein also vowed to suspend cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors if they did not finish their work by May 20. And his deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, declared a jihad (holy war, or struggle) on sanctions.

Iraqis staged a demonstration at the inspectors' headquarters, as well as a funeral procession for children they said had died from lack of medicines caused by sanctions, to coincide with Butler's visit.

Mourners cursed the United States as more than 73 coffins passed through a central Baghdad street. "There is only one God, and America is his enemy," people chanted.

The U.N.'s position is that the only way for sanctions to be lifted is for Iraq to comply with the weapons inspectors, and some members -- notably the United States and Britain -- have warned that they are losing their patience.

But in Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rebuffed calls for the immediate use of military force.

A 'concealment program' in Iraq

"While we have said many times that military force is an option, we believe that this is a time to follow out the diplomatic route, backed by the threat of the use of force," she said.

Albright said Washington wants to see what Butler accomplishes in Baghdad, and to consult with its allies on how to keep U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq in place.

"We believe that the unity of the international community has been very important and continues to be so, and that the message being delivered to Saddam Hussein is that the international community is united in its determination for him to fulfill" U.N. resolutions, she said.

Russia and France would almost certainly use their vetoes in the Security Council to deny U.N. backing to any use of force against Iraq.

Asked before Monday's talks in Iraq if the inspection program would get more difficult as it neared its end, Butler said: "My predecessor took the Security Council carefully through the notion that there is a concealment program in this country. It's not shock, horror, or surprise. It's a fact. Iraq knows it.

"The closer we get to the end, the closer we get to the last bits that have been, quote 'concealed' unquote -- of course that makes it tougher."

"The last lap of this race maybe is the hardest, but we've got to run it. Otherwise, Lord knows what will happen."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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