WASHINGTON — Noting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Christmas message avoided mention of new U.N. weapon inspection demands, American officials say they will continue to wait for formal word from Baghdad about its possible compliance.
But the demands have been rejected by newspapers in Iraq that usually parrot the regime's views.
The Iraqi papers, in editorials Wednesday and Thursday, accused the United States of preparing to attack Iraq and rejected the U.N. Security Council's insistence that the nation allow U.N. inspectors entry into presidential palaces or any other site suspected of hiding biological weapons.
Calvin Mitchell, spokesman for U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, said the United States still expects the U.N. inspectors, acting under Security Council authority, to continue their search for evidence within Iraq, despite the editorials.
"We have no reaction to the editorials," Mitchell said. "This is not an official Iraqi response."
In the latest phase of the confrontation, the 15 members of the Security Council issued a unanimous statement Monday denouncing Iraq's refusal to let the inspectors enter a host of compounds that the Iraqis have designated as "presidential sites."
Council members, calling this "unacceptable and a clear violation of the relevant resolutions," demanded that Iraq allow the inspectors "immediate, unconditional access" to any site they wish to inspect.
Tarik Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, quickly denounced the statement as an action that "mirrors once again the blackmail practices by America on the council," and the authoritative Iraqi newspapers followed with expressions of defiance.
The Clinton administration has issued strong, though vague, threats to Iraq that failure to allow inspectors into the sites could lead to "serious consequences." While Washington has said it is willing to let other countries try to induce cooperation from Hussein, Richardson has warned, "Patience eventually is going to run out."
The United States has said U.N. resolutions adopted after the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 would permit military action to force Iraq to comply.
But Russia and France have called for more time to seek a peaceful solution, and the Iraqi editorials seem likely to prompt diplomats from those two nations to go to Baghdad to try once more to persuade Hussein to cooperate.
To do that, the diplomats must assure him that the United States will go along with the lifting of international economic sanctions against Iraq should the inspectors pronounce his country free of weapons of mass destruction.
France and Russia, which share a strong interest in the development of Iraqi oil fields, would like to see the sanctions lifted and have strongly resisted the idea of using force to make Hussein comply with the inspections.
Although Hussein made no reference to the inspection of presidential sites in his Christmas message to Iraqi Christians, he said Iraq will continue to struggle against "injustice and its doers, in the forefront of which are America the aggressor together with Zionism and its usurper entity," a reference to Israel.
In one of the Iraqi editorials, the official Al Qadissiya said Thursday: 'We're tired of hearing America repeat the same old song that Iraq is not cooperating with the U.N. teams charged with disarmament. It is trying to raise tensions and invent pretexts to push the Security Council to condemn Iraq.
"Everything is part of feverish American efforts to attempt to prepare for aggression against Iraq," Al Qadissiya said.
Al Thawra, the official newspaper of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, said Wednesday that "there should be a red line that inspection teams should not go beyond." That red line, according to Al Thawra, must be painted around presidential palaces and other presidential sites.
A third newspaper, Al Jumhuriya, said that Iraqis should take their stand on the presidential sites and, if necessary, make them the stage for an "honorable national battle."
In the past, the official U.S. position has been that Iraqi compliance with inspections would not be enough to warrant the lifting of sanctions. The U.S. has said it intends to veto lifting sanctions until Iraq complies with all the U.N. resolutions that ended the Gulf War.
But if Hussein satisfied the inspectors, there would be enormous international pressure on the Clinton administration to allow the lifting of the sanctions.
The current standoff had its most dangerous moments this fall, when Hussein refused to allow American inspectors into the country and threatened to shoot down an American U-2 plane making surveillance flights for the U.N.
U.S. officials made it clear that they would retaliate militarily if Iraq harmed an American inspector or shot down the U-2. That potential flash point was averted in November, however, when the Russians persuaded Hussein to back down and promised, in exchange, to do all that they could to ease sanctions. But the Iraqis still refused to let inspectors look at presidential sites, prolonging the crisis.