Iraq agrees to return of inspectors

As pressure increases, Hussein regime allows unconditional arms search

`It is a tactic that will fail'

U.S. rejects offer, pushes U.N. to step up efforts on eliminating weapons

September 17, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Iraq, facing mounting international pressure and President Bush's oft-stated goal of driving Saddam Hussein from power, agreed yesterday to the return of United Nations weapons inspectors "without conditions," a move it said would remove all suspicion that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqi offer, contained in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was quickly rebuffed by the White House, which demanded that the U.N. Security Council continue tightening the screws on Baghdad.

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

In the statement, the White House insisted that the Security Council continue work on a "new, effective" resolution "that will actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to the world."

The White House went on to call the Iraqi offer "a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action. As such, it is a tactic that will fail."

The offer appeared designed to short-circuit the Bush administration's campaign to persuade the Security Council to declare Iraq in violation of numerous past resolutions and to authorize the use of military force if Iraq continued to defy the international community.

Iraq has made 11th-hour offers before in efforts to head off a confrontation with the council and prevent military action by the United States.

There was no immediate reaction from leaders of Congress, which Bush has urged to adopt a pre-Election Day resolution sanctioning the use of force against Hussein.

The Iraqi letter came four days after Bush, in a speech at the United Nations, challenged the Security Council to force Iraq to comply with a series of U.N. demands dating back more than a decade. If the United Nations failed to assert its authority, Bush warned, the United States would have to act alone.

"I am pleased to inform you of the decision of the Government of the Republic of Iraq to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors without conditions," said the letter to Annan from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.

Sabri said Iraq's decision was based on "its desire to complete the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions and to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."

The Sabri letter said Iraq is "ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections." Some analysts have said Iraq could use such discussions as a way of delaying the start of inspections.

Annan, in a brief televised statement at U.N. headquarters, said he would pass the Iraqi letter on to the Security Council, "and they will have to decide what they do next."

But in contrast with the White House, Annan gave the impression that he thought the letter had gone a long way to defuse the growing crisis swirling around Iraq. He said the head of the U.N. inspection agency, Hans Blix, and his team "will be ready to continue their work."

Annan credited Bush with causing Iraq's turnabout. As recently as Sunday, two days after the president's speech, senior Iraqi officials had insisted on imposing conditions on the return of weapons inspectors, such as the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions.

"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan said. His statement came after he met with Sabri and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League. Annan praised Moussa's "strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq."

The markedly different responses from Annan and the White House suggest that the United States may have a difficult time in uniting the Security Council behind a campaign of pressure against Iraq.

The return of weapons inspectors is widely seen by Security Council members as essential to finding out whether Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction and what programs Baghdad has to expand its arsenal.

Inspectors left Iraq in late 1998 after concluding that Iraq was not granting them access to suspected weapons sites. The United States and Britain punished Iraq with four days of airstrikes. Until yesterday, Iraq refused to agree to the inspectors' return.

Among members of the Security Council, only Britain is solidly behind Bush in holding out the threat of war to topple Hussein's regime. Other members, including France and Russia, have focused on a return of inspectors, and don't want the United Nations to authorize the use of force right away and don't share the American goal of regime change.

Bush, speaking earlier yesterday at a political fund-raiser in Iowa, used some of his most forceful language to signal that he would not consider the threat from Iraq removed until Hussein was overthrown.

"This tyrant must be dealt with," Bush said.

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