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Iraq Says a U.N. Team Can Return; U.S. Dismisses Offer

Dispute: Baghdad tells secretary-general that weapons inspectors will have unrestricted access. Washington insists the issue is disarmament.

September 17, 2002|MAGGIE FARLEY and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UNITED NATIONS — Iraq said Monday that it would allow U.N. arms inspectors unconditional access to suspected weapons sites, an effort to avoid attack that will test the Security Council's growing support for U.S. demands for action.

While U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed hopes that the offer was the first step in defusing the conflict, the Bush administration immediately dismissed it as "a tactic that will fail."

U.S. officials said the Iraqi offer echoed Baghdad's earlier maneuvers to stall and divide the council, and dealt only with weapons inspections, not with the host of other U.N. resolutions Iraq has violated. They said the United States would continue pressing for a new U.N. resolution requiring Iraq to disarm.

But Iraq's move puts pressure on the newly united Security Council. British officials, anticipating such a move by Baghdad, rejected the offer. Diplomats from Russia and France, also Security Council members, supported the return of weapons inspectors and cautioned that the U.S. should work through the council. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin warned that Washington should think twice before striking alone. "This could be the most important foreign policy decision they will take since World War II," he said Monday.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri wrote in a letter to Annan that "to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction," Iraqi authorities would allow inspectors to continue their work "without conditions."

Iraq is ready to start immediate discussions on the details of the inspectors' return, the letter said.

Annan credited President Bush's speech Thursday with prompting Iraq's offer. In the address, Bush challenged the U.N. to act against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or to stand back to let the U.S. strike.

"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan said. "Almost every speaker in the General Assembly urged Iraq to accept the return of the inspectors."

Besides the threat of war, pressure by Iraq's Arab neighbors strongly influenced Baghdad, diplomats say. Annan praised the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, "for his strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq."

The turning point came Saturday in a confidential meeting Moussa arranged in Annan's office with Arab foreign ministers and Sabri.

"This buys the region some time to try to change the dynamics by putting pressure on Iraq to convince them they have to cooperate fully or it'll be their last chance," said a senior Arab diplomat who was at the meeting. "We were on a collision course, and now we've avoided a collision--for now. So let's give the inspectors a chance and see where it leads us."

The U.S. reaction was much harsher.

"This is not a matter of inspections," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions.

"This is a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action," he said. "As such, it is a tactic that will fail. It is time for the Security Council to act."

A U.S. official at the United Nations said any return to Iraq by weapons inspectors was likely to be short-lived.

"We have been through this before. We are very skeptical that the Iraqis can be trusted even if they invite the inspectors back in," he said. "We fully expect Iraq not to comply."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in comments made before Iraq's offer became public, said that previous announcements "have been an alternative to doing what Iraq is required to do by international law, which is to readmit the inspectors without condition and without restriction."

De Villepin said the Security Council must discuss what to do after inspectors return.

News agencies quoted Russia's foreign minister, Igor S. Ivanov, as saying that Iraq's offer ended the need for any new resolution against it.

Other diplomats warned that Iraq is offering the bare minimum to evade a U.S. attack. The letter does not promise to fulfill Baghdad's obligation to allow "full and unfettered" access by the U.N. inspectors. And it's not a promise to disarm, but just an invitation for inspectors to come look.

"At best, it's Iraq willing to take the first step. At worst, it's another false promise," said a senior State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell Monday night. He said that a new resolution must contain three elements: a statement that Iraq has breached U.N. resolutions, specifications of what Iraq must do to prove cooperation with the U.N., and the consequences if Iraq fails to comply.

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