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Nearing Unity on Inspections

United Nations: France, a frequent critic of U.S. strategy toward Iraq, agrees that clear, new rules are needed in the hunt for weapons.


UNITED NATIONS — The United States on Thursday appeared to head off any move by the U.N. Security Council to send weapons inspectors back to Iraq under current rules that have repeatedly failed in the past.

Displaying uncharacteristic unity on the Iraq issue, representatives from several countries-- including Britain, France and the U.S.--said after a 2 1/2-hour meeting that a new Security Council resolution was needed to clarify "loose ends" before the inspectors' return.

Diplomats said the issues include gaining unfettered access to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's presidential compounds -- eight large plots of land, many of them containing dozens of buildings, that had been virtually impossible to inspect under existing rules.

"We've said it's prudent to have new practical arrangements before we go, and we still think this," said chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The development seemed to end the push last month by several U.N. member states who wanted inspectors back immediately, after Iraq consented to their return under existing rules--a prospect strongly opposed by the Bush administration.

Despite the emerging consensus on the need for new, clear rules for inspections, major differences still separated Security Council members about the form they should take, and how stringent and comprehensive the resolution containing them should be. A major sticking point that remains is whether a new resolution would allow for an immediate use of force if Iraq balks at inspections, a provision strongly favored by the Bush administration.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov strongly opposed a toughly worded U.S.-backed resolution, saying it was not the time for statements advocating the use of military force. In Paris, France stuck doggedly to its insistence that any Security Council action against Iraq be broken into two parts--one defining the inspections regime, a second stating the consequences if Baghdad fails to comply.

Events at the United Nations and in member capitals marked the latest steps in an Anglo-American effort to rid Iraq of any nuclear, biological and chemical weapons by conducting rigorous inspections backed by the potential use of force if Hussein fails to cooperate. They unfolded as the Bush administration began quietly exploring a less hard-line strategy for passing a resolution that would win broad support for strong action within the Security Council.

In Congress, meanwhile, debate formally began Thursday on a domestic resolution that would give President Bush broad authority to launch military action against Iraq if he determines that further diplomatic efforts have proved insufficient. In the Republican-controlled House, the International Relations Committee approved the measure, 31 to 11. That clears the way for what is expected to be a strong vote of support by the full House next week.

In the Senate, where many senior Democrats want to impose more restrictions on Bush's war-making powers, the debate promises to be more contentious. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has said he wants the Senate to consider at least two alternatives that would give a larger role to the U.N. and focus the potential use of force more narrowly on ensuring the disarmament of Iraq.

As debate opened Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he hoped it would mark "the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein and all that he stands for."

At the U.N., after the Security Council listened Thursday to Blix's report on his meetings earlier this week in Vienna with Iraqi negotiators, members seemed to agree not just that new rules were needed but also that inspectors should return to Iraq as soon as possible once more stringent rules are established.

In keeping with Baghdad's recent conciliatory posture, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.N. Mohammed Douri said resolving the problem of access to the presidential compounds "would not be an issue of difficulty" between Iraq and the weapons inspectors.

Blix reached agreement in his talks with the Iraqis that inspectors would return to Baghdad on Oct. 19. However, he indicated Thursday that he would not go until the Security Council had voted on a new resolution.

"We're ready to go at the earliest practical opportunity," Blix said. "If there is a delay, it wouldn't be a long one. I think the council would want us to go early."

Blix was scheduled to meet with senior Bush administration officials in Washington today. While the chief inspector described the visit as a routine consultation, the talks are expected to include a detailed briefing on his meetings with Iraqi negotiators and his assessment of what he needs to make the inspections work.

In Washington, Bush stepped up pressure on the United Nations to quickly pass a resolution authorizing a tough weapons inspection regime in Iraq.

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