Iraq agrees to arms inspections;
US dismisses move as a 'tactic'
Offer is relayed to UN council
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 09/17/2002
NITED NATIONS - Iraq agreed yesterday to the unconditional return of United Nations weapons inspectors, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced last night, a possible breakthrough in a nearly four-year standoff over concerns that Iraq was still developing weapons of mass destruction.
But the Bush administration, which has argued for toppling President Saddam Hussein and talked of a possible military strike, immediately dismissed the letter as "a tactic" to avoid stronger action from the UN Security Council, and urged the 15-member body to adopt a resolution demanding disarmament.
Iraq, which conveyed its decision in a two-page letter from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to Annan, said it wanted to "remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction" and to move toward the lifting of UN economic sanctions imposed on it since 1990.
Yesterday's announcement by Annan capped an intense day of diplomatic lobbying that saw key US and European officials pressing their case for tougher UN resolutions that would end more than a decade of defiance by Hussein. Then, in an unexpected announcement at day's end, Annan read a brief statement that said Iraq was ready to start "immediate discussions" on the practical arrangements for the return of inspectors.
"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying this decision to allow the return of inspectors without conditions to continue their work," a pleased Annan said.
Iraq's decision addresses just one of several accusations that Bush made against Iraq in his speech last Thursday to the General Assembly. Bush said Iraq also must comply with a series of UN resolutions adopted since the Gulf War, including the return of prisoners and an end to human rights abuses within Iraq.
It was not clear that the return of weapons inspectors alone would forestall US military action.
Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector, welcomed yesterday's news and was ready for talks to begin immediately on the "practical arrangements" for inspections to resume, said spokesman Ewen Buchanan.
Iraq's letter was immediately relayed to the Security Council, but still leaves open the question of whether the group will adopt the kind of strong resolution the Bush administration has sought.
Before Annan's announcement, a consensus appeared to be building among council members for a resolution that would detail Iraq's failure to comply with previous UN mandates.
Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, in an interview earlier yesterday, indicated that the council was divided on whether a new resolution would still be needed if Iraq agreed to let the UN team return. Russia, one of five permanent members of the council that can block a resolution with a veto, had expressed skepticism of the need for a US attack.
"We expect Baghdad will send a confirmation on its readiness to comply," Ivanov said. Otherwise, he warned, Baghdad will have to "bear all the responsibility of the consequences" of continuing to defy the will of the international community.
Annan, underscoring the overwhelming diplomatic pressure brought on the Hussein government because of Washington's tough talk and attempts to win support from the international community, thanked those countries that had helped persuade Iraq. He singled out Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa for his "strenuous efforts."
China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Yingfan, interviewed moments after Annan's announcement, hailed Iraq's decision. "Most of the countries are working towards a final objective -- no war there," Wang said. "I think we are closer to that objective. It's positive."
The White House said a Security Council resolution requiring that Iraq disarm was still needed.
"This is a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong UN Security Council action. As such, it is a tactic that will fail," Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said in a written statement.
Iraq's announcement means the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, led by Blix, can begin tentative plans to enter Iraq for the first time since its creation in 1999. His team would carry out inspections for chemical and biological weapons, as well as the long-range missiles used to deliver them. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency would check for nuclear weapons.
Blix, in an interview with the Globe last week, said that once practical arrangments are made with Iraq, an initial team of inspectors to carry out logistical tasks could be ready to go within a few days.
Some of the arrangements could include installing monitoring equipment and agreeing on landing sites for the commission's aircraft. By agreeing on these details in advance, Blix said he hopes to avoid the disputes that bogged down the previous UN inspections team known as the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM.
Once the inspections team is fully operational in Iraq, according to the existing Security Council resolutions, the inspection team has 60 days to list Iraq's disarmament requirements, which the Security Council must approve.
Blix said the inspections process, if the Iraqis fully cooperate, could take about a year.
Iraq's letter contends that Baghdad's compliance is an "indispensable first step" not only to ensuring that it no longer harbors weapons of mass destruction, but also to the lifting of sanctions, long lobbied for by Hussein and his regime.
Weapons inspectors were mandated by 1991 UN resolutions that announced a cease-fire in the Gulf War. Economic sanctions imposed against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until the UN certifies that Baghdad no longer possesses nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.
The last group of inspectors left Iraq in 1998 in advance of a US-British attack to punish Hussein for failing to comply with inspections. Iraq has banned their return ever since.
In response to Iraqi allegations that some of the inspectors were spies because they remained on their government payrolls, the Security Council created the new weapons monitoring team, which includes more than 200 inspectors from 44 countries. All of them are on the UN payroll.
US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday continued his diplomatic push at the United Nations, meeting with dozens of key member states to rally consensus behind a new UN resolution demanding that Iraq disarm. Support for a resolution had grown, Powell said, with a "great deal of pressure" now being placed upon Iraq.
"And there will be, in the not-too-distant future, I hope, a new resolution from the United Nations that I think will capture all the violations of the last 11 years," Powell said.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 09/17/2002.
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