United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan leaves Saturday for China, the first stop on a visit to seven Asian countries. The issue of Iraq is not on the agenda, but is expected to come up in discussions in Beijing.
China is one of five permanent members of the Security Council wielding veto power over decisions. With the United States talking about possible military action if Saddam Hussein does not cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors, Iraq's fate, in effect, partly lies in Beijing's hands.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard says the secretary-general will not be on an Iraq-related mission during his Asian trip. But he does not rule out discussions about Iraq, given China's key position at the United Nations.
"He's paying what is now pretty much an annual visit to a permament member of the Security Council," he said. "They'll be talking about everything that is on their mutual agenda. Iraq is likely to come up because it is so much on everyone's minds. But he is not trying to influence any Council member's position on Iraq."
The U.N. spokesman says secretary-general Annan is scrupulously trying to stay out of the political debate among Security Council members on a new resolution. But a low profile apparently does not mean the secretary-general is disengaged. As spokesman Eckhard puts it, "his head is down, but his hand is in."
There is widespread support in the Security Council for a tough resolution warning Iraq of consequences if it fails to cooperate with inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction. But the United States, supported by Britain, is virtually alone in wanting a measure that would allow it to decide, without further consultations, whether Iraq is meeting the new demands. China, along with France and Russia, has expressed strong reservations about giving any government an automatic right to use force against Iraq.
Iraq, which denies having the banned weapons, says it is ready to confront any possible attack.
Meanwhile, chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix has put the inspections on hold temporarily, pending new instructions from the Security Council. Baghdad recently agreed to let the inspectors back in, after a nearly four-year absence. U.N. diplomats are trying to make sure the inspectors have unfettered, immediate access to all sites.