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Syria backs anti-WMD resolution in U.N.

EL GRECO | 17.04.2003 09:24

Syria on Wednesday introduced in the U.N. Security Council a draft resolution calling for a ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It was seen by many diplomats as a move principally aimed at nuclear weapons believed held by Israel.

Syria on Wednesday introduced in the U.N. Security Council a draft resolution calling for a ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, in the wake of the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime and U.S. accusations Damascus is producing chemical weapons.

It was seen by many diplomats as a move principally aimed at nuclear weapons believed held by Israel.

The move in the council came as U.N. humanitarian agencies were ramping up their efforts to help the people of Iraq.

Damascus envoy Mikhail Wehbe tabled the draft measure, endorsed only Tuesday by members of the Arab Group in the United Nations.

"The main aim of this draft resolution is a free zone in the Middle East of WMD," he later told reporters. "We feel it is a very important resolution at this stage, you know, to show the importance of keeping the area without any of the mass destruction -- the nuclear, which is the most destructive, and the chemical and biological."

Wehbe said his nation put forward the measure in support of an earlier anti-terrorist resolution "to prevent as well any terrorist group from getting and possessing the mass destruction weapons" and to support the Middle East peace process involving Israel and the Palestinians. He said it had the endorsement of the Arab Group.

Asked if Syria had any weapons of mass destruction and if it were prepared to give them up, he replied, "Not at all. We are already proving that by presenting this draft resolution."

Wehbe said Syria already was prepared "to sign any agreement or treaty concerning establishing this free zone (of) mass destruction weapons."

The council draft urges implementation of previous council resolutions "aimed at freeing the Middle East region of all weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons."

The initial reaction of U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte was, "We see a problem."

After the closed-door consultations where the measure was introduced, he told reporters, "I think our focus at the moment is on Iraq on the search for -- the ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction in that country, which we are convinced are there," he said. "I think that's got to be the concentration of our efforts at this particular time."

He added: "We're concerned about Syria's own WMD and obviously if a council member or any member of the United Nations proposes a resolution for consideration, we're prepared to consider it. That doesn't mean we're prepared to adopt, embrace it or endorse it in any way, shape or form."

However, when Washington's envoy was asked if the U.S. plan to rid the region of WMD "includes Israel," he responded, "We have always said that the goal should be that the entire region be free of weapons of mass destruction. Yes, that includes every country in the region."

Specifically, the draft measure as introduced by Syria called for Middle East states to accede to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxic Weapons and on their Destruction, and the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.

Israel, widely believed to have nuclear weapons, has never admitted it but while it has signed the chemical convention, it has not ratified it.

Council diplomats said the Syrian draft was going to be discussed by experts Thursday.

A spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Athens, on the sidelines of the European Union leadership meeting, to discuss post-conflict Iraq.

Hua Jiang, who was at U.N. headquarters, said the secretary-general emphasized the need for the council to assess the tasks that need to be done and the capacity of different organizations to perform them. Then, the U.N. role could be considered in concrete terms.

Annan also urged coalition partners to share their strategic vision with other members of the council, which he hoped would deal with Iraq in a unified way, she said.

The secretary-general told reporters afterward that he and Blair were confident they would be able to work with other leaders, including those in the region, and with council members to find a way forward.

Annan discussed Iraq further with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller.

The secretary-general was also to meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Asked how divisions in the Security Council could be healed, the spokeswoman said the idea was that the leaders meeting in Athens should concentrate first on what they can agree on, including principles for post-conflict Iraq and humanitarian operations, before dealing with other issues. She said the secretary-general shared the belief expressed by his special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, that "in order to go fast, you have to go slow."

Progress was slow in the humanitarian effort "on the ground" in Iraq, but with U.N. food convoys advancing on the beleaguered Arab state from four directions, the spokeswoman said.

Dozens of World Food Program trucks left Amman, Jordan, for Baghdad and from Kermanshah, Iran, for Sulaymaniyah, said the agency's spokesman in Amman, Khaled Mansour.

The Amman convoy carried wheat flour and the Kermanshah set of trucks carried vegetable oil. From Turkey heading for Dohuk another convoy had 3,000 tons of food and WFP was preparing to move tons of oil-for-food wheat flour from Kuwait to warehouses in Iraq.

The wheat was the first since the program was adjusted by the Security Council to meet the post-conflict situation. About 60 percent of Iraqis depend on oil-for-food supplies as their sole ration. A second 50,000-ton shipment was expected in the Jordanian port of Aqaba within days.

The World Health Organization said the situation in Baghdad continued to cause major concern.

The Central Public Health Laboratory had been looted and incubators containing polio virus cultures had been stolen, spokeswoman Melanie Zipperer said. Hospitals reported to be functioning to some extent included the Medical City complex, Yarmouk, Kadhimiya and No'man. WHO staff would continue to visit major hospitals in order to prioritize and rapidly meet the most urgent needs, she said.

"We have made contact with WHO staff in Baghdad and the information they have provided is bleak," Zipperer said. The WHO Baghdad office had been very badly looted and burnt, all official vehicles had been stolen and much valuable equipment and information destroyed.

The U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, reported an outbreak of blackwater fever in southern Iraq. The waterborne disease, also known as laeshmaniasis, leads to severe debility and eventually death if not treated within four to six weeks. Spokesman Geoffrey Keele stressed the urgency of getting medicines into the affected area.

The Food and Agriculture Organization said farmers in Iraq were in urgent need of spare parts and fuel for combine harvesters and tractors for the upcoming spring harvest, the country's main harvest, for which the outlook was uncertain.

"Every effort should be made to enable farmers to return to their fields and start harvesting wheat and barley at the beginning of May," said Laurent Thomas, chief of the agency's Special Emergency Programs Service in Rome. "In addition, urgent support is needed to revive cereal marketing and distribution facilities."