UNITED NATIONS — In the first high-level meeting between the United Nations and Iraq in more than a year, the Iraqi foreign minister discussed U.N. demands for weapons inspections with Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday, but there were no indications that Baghdad was ready to drop its objections to such scrutiny.
The nearly four hours of closed-door talks with Foreign Minister Naji Sabri focused on the return of weapons inspectors to the country and other "core issues" in the U.N.-Iraqi relationship, Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
"The U.N. side raised the U.N.'s concerns, and we raised our own concerns," Sabri said as he left U.N. headquarters en route back to the Middle East.
Although Thursday's meeting appeared inconclusive, it was cordial and not confrontational, in contrast to the last high-level encounters between U.N. and Iraqi officials, participants said.
And it appears to have bought the Iraqis some valuable time, with Annan agreeing to resume talks with Sabri in mid-April. That meeting will be "based on a well-defined agenda agreed in advance," Eckhard said.
The Iraqis sought Thursday's meeting in response to the threat of U.S. military action against their country, Western diplomats and U.N. officials said.
Annan, reflecting the stated views of most Security Council members, said Thursday that he hoped U.S. military intervention could be averted through negotiations and a resumption of inspections.
"I would want to see a situation where we are able to resolve our differences diplomatically and that Iraq comes into compliance," Annan told reporters before the talks began. "I wouldn't want to see a widening conflict in the region."
U.N. officials said earlier that they would not consent to a second round of talks with Sabri unless Iraq indicated some willingness to reopen its doors to weapons inspectors, who left the country in December 1998.
In the meeting Thursday in Annan's 38th-floor offices, the Iraqi delegation met for the first time with the head of the U.N.'s recently reorganized weapons inspections unit, Hans Blix, whose team hasn't been allowed to visit Baghdad.
Neither Sabri nor Annan would divulge the results of Thursday's discussions, which Annan termed "frank and useful" in a brief statement issued afterward.
Annan said he wouldn't speak publicly about the discussions until he briefed the Security Council in a closed session this morning. But he noted in his statement that Iraq had again asked for the lifting of U.N. sanctions and an end to "no-fly" zones over much of the country.
U.S. officials here reiterated Washington's view that Iraq must give U.N. inspectors "free and unfettered access" to all relevant military sites and documents but said they would defer further comment about the meeting until after today's Security Council briefing.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials showed diplomats and U.N. officials satellite photos that they said proved that Iraq was circumventing the sanctions by converting as many as 1,000 heavy-duty imported trucks to artillery and missile carriers. The photos indicate that Iraq cannot be trusted to comply with U.N. weapons-control demands even if it lets inspectors back in, U.S. officials contend.
In an 11-nation tour of the Middle East that starts next week, Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to seek support for eventual military action against Iraq. On Wednesday, Iraq's deputy prime minister was quoted as telling visitors from Lebanon that leader Saddam Hussein was holding strategy sessions this week in preparation for a possible U.S. attack.
Some Western diplomats here were skeptical about the Iraqi foreign minister's intentions. "It's much too early to make a judgment about whether this is for real--whether they are truly seeing what the route to full compliance will be, or whether they are just trying to start a process because having a process gives them more protection than not having a process," said Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the U.N.
The Security Council has pledged to keep trade sanctions intact until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq has eliminated nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as any programs to develop such weapons.
If Iraq were to reverse course and readmit the inspectors, Blix's team would have 60 working days to set up shop in Iraq. Once inspections resumed, the U.N. team would inform the Security Council whether Iraq was agreeing to the inspectors' demands for access to dozens of sites and thousands of pages of documents they say they need to see. If Iraq is officially deemed cooperative, the Security Council would lift trade sanctions provisionally 120 days later for renewable 120-day periods.