Iraq agreed in principle Thursday to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles, two days before a UN deadline. Word of the agreement came as chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said Baghdad's disarmament efforts had been "very limited so far."
The mixed signals were likely to provide ammunition to supporters and opponents of a quick war to disarm Iraq. The two sides failed to reach agreement on substantive issues during a heated and bitter discussion in the Security Council on Thursday.
Diplomats said privately that the lack of consensus and tone of the debate were demoralizing, but many held out hope for compromise among the council's five major powers. The United States and Britain are pushing a resolution that would open the door for war, while Russia, China and France are calling for continued weapons inspections and a diplomatic end to the crisis.
Chinese Ambassador Wang Yingfan said he, too, hoped for a compromise that could unify the council "but I could see it's very difficult."
There were no signs of agreement at Thursday's four-hour meeting, held behind closed-doors.
Bulgaria's UN Ambassador Stefan Tavrov, who is considered a likely supporter of the US-backed resolution, said: "I haven't found any important change or ... an important shift in those positions."
At the end of the session, French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said the majority of the council still opposed the draft resolution and that he pushed the French proposal for additional time for inspections.
Ambassadors said there was little actual discussion about the merits of the US resolution or the French proposal. And they couldn't agree on the content of Blix's next presentation to the council or even agree on which day next week he would appear.
Blix was invited to discuss his 17-page report detailing the work of his staff in Iraq over the past three months. The report was submitted to the United Nations Wednesday and will be sent to council ambassadors on Friday.
In a key section of the report, read to The Associated Press by council diplomats, Blix says Saddam Hussein could have made greater efforts "to find remaining proscribed items or credible evidence showing the absence of such items."
Other sections of the report cited positive examples of Iraqi cooperation, but said it was "hard to understand why a number of the measures which are now being taken could not have been initiated earlier. If they had been taken earlier, they might have borne fruit," Blix wrote.
US officials had said they expected Iraq would agree to destroy its missiles, which were found to have a range exceeding the 93-mile limit set by the Security Council at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In a letter to Blix on Thursday, Iraq agreed "in principle" to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles, UN diplomats and officials said on condition of anonymity.
But it wasn't immediately clear whether Iraq's letter constituted an unconditional acceptance and whether Iraq would meet the Saturday deadline to begin the destruction, as Blix has ordered.
Blix told reporters earlier this week that the missile issue would be a key test of Iraq's cooperation.
While Blix has noted some recent Iraqi cooperation, he lamented in his report: "It is hard to understand why a number of the measures which are now being taken could not have been initiated earlier."
Nonetheless, he noted that inspections resumed only in November after a four-year break and asked: "Is it the right time to close the door?"
Russia has been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but in a telephone call Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush pledged to continue consultations on Iraq, the Kremlin said.
"Both sides expressed the intention to increase work in the UN Security Council with the purpose of developing a plan of action that would guarantee the interests of the entire world community," the Kremlin press service said in a statement.
The US draft resolution authorizing war was presented earlier this week by the United States, Britain and Spain.
There was some evidence that Bush was gaining ground for military action, including signals that Mexico had changed its strong anti-war stance and was now preparing to back the US-driven resolution.
Pakistan is also a key vote.
Iraq and the United States each sent envoys to Islamabad on Thursday to state their case.
Islamabad has not revealed whether it would support the US resolution, although Pakistani diplomats said privately that Pakistan would likely abstain in any vote. There's almost no possibility that Pakistan would vote against the United States, and some within President Pervez Musharraf's administration say Islamabad is considering voting with Washington.
But some undecided council countries, such as Chile, pushed for a Canadian plan aimed at reconciling bitter differences between the US resolution and the French-led proposal. Chile's ambassador said Mexico also was interested in finding a middle ground within the council.
The Bush administration on Wednesday rejected the Canadian ideas, which were aimed at giving Iraq until the end of March to complete a list of disarmament tasks that inspectors are compiling.
A senior US diplomat said the United States didn't want the outstanding tasks to become another low hurdle the Iraqis could jump in order to buy more time.
(China Daily February 28, 2003)