U.S. 'skeptical' of Iraq weapons inspection offer
White House: 'Regime change is our goal.'
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- U.N. officials Friday discussed Iraq's offer to resume weapons talks, but a U.S. official at the United Nations said "we're skeptical" of the Iraqi diplomatic move, and a White House official dismissed it, saying, "Regime change is our goal."
Iraq Thursday delivered a letter from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, which welcomed talks with Blix and his experts.
Blix was meeting with his aides Friday, and a top aide to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that while the offer is a positive development, considering the present diplomatic standoff between the United Nations and Iraq, the substance of the offer must be examined.
And, the U.S. official at the U.N. said the letter is not significant enough because the Iraqis still are not complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions mandating that weapons inspectors be allowed inside the country.
The Baghdad government is not permitting weapons inspectors in right now, just offering to talk again about the idea, the U.S. official noted.
The White House, unconvinced Iraq will truly allow weapons inspectors to have "unfettered" access to the country, called for "action" not "discussions."
"The Iraqis have signed an agreement that allows inspectors any time, anywhere, by anyone," Claire Buchan, White House deputy press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Kennebunkport, Maine. "That is what they're expected to do. They have that obligation, so it's time for action, not discussions."
Call for compliance
In Washington, a White House official said "any discussion between the two should be very brief. ... It's clear what Saddam Hussein needs to do to comply with the agreement he made in 1991 to rid his country of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons inspections have always been a means to an end."
In any case, the official said, the U.S. policy of a regime change in Iraq will not change.
President Bush emphasized that point Thursday, saying the U.S. wants Hussein out because he "threatens his neighbors" and "develops weapons of mass destruction."
Asked if the Bush administration believed Hussein was trying to stall, fearing a possible military attack, the senior official told CNN, "Who knows?"
"We've seen this story line before," the official said. "It's doubtful they have changed their tune."
Iraqi diplomats say the timetable for any talks would have to be mutually agreed upon.
In early July, the United Nations and Iraq held a third round of unsuccessful talks aimed at the return of weapons inspectors.
Immediately after those talks, Iraq remained insistent that discussions would progress only if issues such as U.S. threats against Iraq, the no-fly zones, and U.N. sanctions against Iraq were on the table.
Meanwhile, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector told CNN Friday he believes Iraq's move was spurred by the loud public discussion in the United States over removing the regime of Iraqi President Hussein.
But Richard Butler indicated that the move could be nothing more than an empty maneuver.
"Iraq must have been listening. They can hear the drums of war beating, you know. It got their attention," said Butler.
But, referring to the letter, Butler said, "They dusted off a proposal that was three and a half years old that they put to me in 1998, which was a joke. They were told then it was a joke, and they're doing it again. I'm sorry. This is not serious."
Inspectors have not been in Iraq since December 1998, when they left in advance of U.S.-British bombing. They have not been allowed to return since.
Butler said the "fundamental problem we face is Saddam's addiction to weapons of mass destruction, which he's been building on in the period without inspections."
There is "only one thing that needs to happen," Butler said. Iraq needs to open its doors and let in inspectors "anywhere, anytime" to prove they don't have such weapons, he said.
But "of course, they do. Everyone knows they do."
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