Midnight At The Negotiating Table

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WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will join representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council for a dramatic late-night meeting in Geneva to discuss a Russian proposal to end the crisis in the Gulf.

According to diplomats, the Russian deal involves Iraq readmitting U.N. arms inspectors in exchange for promises of impartiality and a guarantee that sanctions will be lifted once Iraq is certified to have destroyed its weapons of mass destruction.

TIME State Department correspondent Dean Fischer says the U.S. could be persuaded to accept such a deal if Iraq guarantees to destroy these weapons and allows UNSCOM the unfettered right to monitor the process. Washington could even accept a change in the composition of UNSCOM to achieve more participation by officials from different countries, says Fischer.

But insiders remain skeptical over whether Baghdad will accept such a deal. "There is a lot of suspicion here that Saddam wants to maintain the option of developing weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq will not therefore agree to allow UNSCOM to freely perform its duties," says Fischer.

Don't expect a bleary-eyed Albright to be waving a peace agreement in the Geneva dawn. But if the carrot of an end to sanctions has indeed convinced Baghdad to allow UNSCOM to continue its work, the Iraq crisis may yet be resolved without any missiles being launched.