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Iraqi weapons talks move welcomed

Blix could return to Iraq for the first time since 1998  

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia has welcomed Iraq's decision to invite the chief United Nations weapons inspector for talks, claiming credit for the move.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Iraq's decision to allow inspectors to travel to Baghdad came after a delegation led by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov visited Baghdad for talks on "deblocking the Iraqi problem."

The Iraqi mission to the United Nations delivered a letter on Thursday from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, which welcomed Blix and his experts.

Iraqi diplomats say the timetable for any talks would have to be mutually agreed upon.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "Moscow believes that the Iraqi proposal is an important step toward solving this problem by political and diplomatic means in accordance with the U.N. Security Council's resolutions."

The British reaction to the announcement was more reserved.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: "Saddam has a long story of playing games. As his track record shows, he does not deliver.

"Iraq remains in breach of at least 23 of 27 separate obligations placed on it by the U.N. Security Council. The requirement of Iraq is clear and unchanged: Unfettered access for U.N. weapons inspections -- any time, any place, anywhere."

In early July, the United Nations and Iraq held a third round of unsuccessful talks aimed at securing 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 sanctions against Iraq imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 were on the table.

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.

The White House had no immediate reaction.

A senior administration official, who did not want to be identified, said the administration's position was that any inspection regime should have unfettered access to Iraq and should be "intrusive," with inspectors able to go "any place, any time and on any notice."

Washington is contemplating military action against Iraq, citing the threat posed by its efforts to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but administration officials insist no decision has been made.

Russia has strongly opposed possible military action against Iraq and supported its push for sanctions to be lifted.




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