WASHINGTON -- Iraq offered last night to release U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors if they sign for the documents they want to take away detailing Iraq's nuclear development program.
In the latest development in the showdown between Baghdad and the inspectors, Iraq also invited a high-level U.N. official to Baghdad to negotiate further, diplomats at the United Nations said.
The apparent Iraqi weakening came as the 44 inspectors, including 27 Americans, completed a second day in a Baghdad parking lot refusing to part with documents and videotapes detailing personnel and foreign sources involved in Iraq's nuclear weapons program. It followed a renewed public warning from Washington that President Bush remained prepared to use military force to ensure the disclosure and eradication of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq had refused to let the inspectors leave the site of a document search until they surrendered copied documents and videotapes, and it had expressed fears that the names of personnel involved in its nuclear program would be turned over to U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
U.N. Security Council President Jean-Bernard Merimee told reporters that he had received a letter about U.N. weapons teams from Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Abdul Amir al-Anbari that "doesn't look negative."
"It could be a breakthrough," he said. Other diplomats concurred and predicted that a high-level U.N. envoy would be dispatched quickly.
British Ambassador Sir David Hannay told reporters that based on the letter, "it appears as if a settlement has been reached on the release of the U.N. inspectors."
Diplomats told reporters that Iraq wanted the inspectors to sign for each document they were removing from the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission building and asked that Rolf Ekeus, head of the U.N. special commission in charge of scrapping Iraq's nuclear weapons, come to Baghdad.
The standoff prompted a meeting between President Bush and his national security advisers yesterday morning, after which Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that Mr. Bush "has preserved all of his options. The patience of the international community is wearing rather thin."
A special U.N. commission is reassembling a team to begin a search for Iraqi Scud and other ballistic missile sites using German helicopters to be based inside Iraq. The basing arrangements offer an early test of Iraq's cooperation.
At the outset, the three German-piloted aircraft will fly unescorted, although the United States is prepared to substitute its own helicopters, with aircraft protection, if they are threatened.
A renewed "aggressive pattern of inspections" of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons facilities, as well as nuclear sites, will follow, a U.S. official said.
Two battalions of Patriot missiles have been sent from Europe to Saudi Arabia, along with 1,380 support soldiers, to provide protection in the event of a military clash between the United States and Iraq.
General Powell said there was also "a rather significant air capability which can be used if there was need to use it on very short notice."
Administration officials said there was little that could be done on the ground to protect the inspectors.
"You protect them by keeping attention on them . . . by keeping the focus of the Security Council on the Iraqis and by keeping the Iraqis on notice that you're continuing to pursue the inspection process aggressively," one said.
They also drew a sharp distinction between the inspectors and the "human shields" held by Iraq at strategic sites before the Persian Gulf war, since the inspectors could leave if they wanted to and have come under no physical threat.