Author:Lancaster, Pat

As The Middle East went to press the countries of the West were contemplating war. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Baghdad for talks intended to decide whether the United States and Britain would unleash the fiercest attack on President Saddam Hussein since the 1991 Gulf War.

Just hours before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Iraq with hopes of negotiating a resolution to the weapons investigation crisis, 30 UN aid workers, each carrying a single suitcase were loaded on to a bus for Jordan. With 30 ships and 300 warships massed in the Gulf, the portends were not good. The majority of Arab and Western governments urged caution and stressed the need for a diplomatic solution to the problem.

Iran's state-run Tehran Radio advised Saddam to "cooperate with Kofi Annan to avoid falling into the trap that had been laid for him."

Neighbouring Syria also welcomed Mr Annan's visit, the success of which it viewed as being the only guarantee of regional security. Both countries strongly opposed the military option. However, the US was adamant it would not back down if Saddam refused to allow free access to UN weapons inspectors and, in pressing its case, argued that it is countries such as Iran, Syria and Iraq's other near neighbours who are most at risk from Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons arsenal.

Kofi Annan's visit to Baghdad was widely interpreted as probably the last chance to avert a military action by Western powers against Iraq. Taha Yassin Ramadan, the Iraqi Vice President, said his country would work "very positively" with Mr Annan. However, the parallels with seven years ago, when the then UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, travelled to Iraq in a vain attempt to persuade it to leave Kuwait, were striking. On that occasion the UN official came away empty handed.

This time, Mr Annan is reported to be "reasonably optimistic" the Iraqi leadership will comply with the UN and allow weapons inspectors the unrestricted access to suspected biological and chemical weapons sites as demanded. As Mr Annan prepared to meet Iraqi officials, the UN began attempts to pin down any agreement that may be reached in Baghdad with a binding resolution. This would declare Iraq in "material breach" of the Gulf War ceasefire if it violates the terms of the agreement.

UN weapons inspectors were reported to be making preparations to move into the country to test Iraq's good faith within days of a possible compromise, allowing inspectors access to the eight presidential palaces...

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