The United States and Russia are headed for a diplomatic showdown over Iraq's weapons programs that could set the stage for another crisis with Baghdad this fall.
Behind closed doors today, Russia plans to press the U.N. Security Council for time limits on biological and chemical inspections in Iraq. And, as a reward for Iraq's having let weapons inspections resume last month, Russia will call for an outright end to the seven-year probe into Baghdad's nuclear weapons program.
But U.S. officials, unsatisfied with inspectors' progress, will oppose any limits. They will also try to talk their Russian counterparts out of a resolution calling for an end to the nuclear inspections.
"We expect an effort to close the nuclear account and we're going to oppose it," said Bill Richardson, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations. "There are still some questions about Iraq's nuclear program."
Less than two months after a U.N.-brokered deal averted American airstrikes, progress in finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is grinding to a halt. Since arms inspections resumed last month, they have turned up no new signs of forbidden biological and chemical arms, despite suspicions that Iraq is hiding evidence.
Iraq's nuclear weapons program until now has been largely uncontroversial. The U.N.-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspected nuclear sites, this month gave Baghdad generally high marks for progress in nuclear disarmament.
But Richardson said the Clinton administration is concerned that Baghdad might be withholding information on possible imports of nuclear technology and that it has not fully divulged the extent of its efforts to enrich uranium. Enriched uranium can be made into crude nuclear weapons.
If Russia presents the 15-member Security Council with a resolution ending nuclear inspections, a U.S. veto alone would force them to continue. But with most members of the council _ including China and possibly France _ expected to side with Russia and Iraq, a vote would hand Baghdad its strongest U.N. support in years. Only Britain is expected to side with the United States.
Russia and France in particular stand to gain millions in oil deals when all sanctions are lifted.
"If the Russians go ahead with the resolution it would be a major coup for Iraq," said veteran U.N. diplomat Ahmed Snoussi of Morocco. Snoussi said pressure on the United States to ease up on economic sanctions, which have cost Iraq an estimated $90-billion to $100-billion, would increase greatly when they come up for annual debate in October.
Emboldened by the inspectors' lack of success, Baghdad is pressing for an end to arms inspections and economic sanctions. Iraq will get a chance at the United Nations today to argue for lifting the sanctions, though no action will be taken.
"If we receive nothing for being good," said an Iraqi official on condition of anonymity, "what do we lose by being bad?"
The Clinton administration, however, does not think Iraq is trying to provoke a new military crisis. Officials think Baghdad is laying the groundwork for a fall crisis intended to pressure the United Nations to lift nearly eight years of economic curbs.
"The sanctions are what this is all about," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And we think it's obviously way too premature to discuss lifting them. We believe the odds are higher of a crisis in the fall than in the spring."
Iraqi leaders argue that the sanctions are responsible for food shortages, malnutrition and premature deaths. Yet Western diplomats and experts say that many other factors are also responsible, including government inefficiency, domestic repression, ethnic discrimination _ and spending by Hussein on such comforts as new presidential palaces.
Foreign diplomats who inspected the compounds this month found palaces featuring imported marble, posh furnishings and elaborate landscaping _ all paid for during the period the sanctions have been in effect.
There are other examples. When Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz journeyed from Baghdad to New York in November to complain about the sanctions, he made the last leg from Paris on the Concorde. The price per head for Aziz and seven aides was $8,453.20.
For the short term, tensions have eased. Iraqi military units are at their home bases on routine duty, according to the administration official. Washington, too, is considering scaling back its military presence of 37,200 troops, 29 ships and 355 aircraft in the Persian Gulf. Military officials are weighing the possibility of keeping just one carrier in the gulf full time, instead of two.
Instead, the White House plans to turn up the propaganda inside Iraq, having decided to back Congress in setting up Voice of America radio broadcasts into Iraq, the U.S. official said.
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.