Iraq agrees to weapons inspections
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- In a letter handed over to the United Nations on Monday, Iraq said it would allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors "without conditions" to "remove any doubts Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."
The White House was dismissive of Iraq's pledge: "We do not take what Saddam says at face value," said a Bush administration official, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In the letter, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri wrote: "The Government of the Republic of Iraq is ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections."
Sabri hand-delivered the letter in a meeting Monday evening with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League.
"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 to Iraq without conditions," the letter said.
"The Government of the Republic of Iraq has based its decision concerning the return of inspectors 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."
Iraq's move appeared to receive a cautious welcome from governments around the world. In Britain, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said the Iraqi regime "had a long history of playing games." (Full story)
The timing of Iraq's letter coincides with a major push by the Bush administration to draft a new, tougher U.N. resolution ordering weapons inspectors back into Iraq on a tight deadline -- and threatening the use of military force if Saddam does not comply.
Bush outlined the administration's stance in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has been meeting with U.N. Security Council members in the hopes of building a consensus to support one or more tougher resolutions. (Full story)
Powell received a copy of the Iraqi letter during a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister.
A senior State Department official called the letter "another claim on another piece of paper" and a "tactical move" to avoid strong Security Council action.
"We are confident Iraq won't succeed in that regard," this official said. He said that in meetings with a variety of foreign ministers, Powell made clear the United States intends to go forward with a Security Council resolution that finds Iraq in violation of prior Security Council resolutions.
"It's up to the Council to say what compliance means," the official said. "It's not for Iraq to pick which aspect of which resolutions it might comply with."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated that concern, saying the U.N. Security Council needs to draw up a "new, effective U.N. Security Council resolution that will actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to the world."
"This is not a matter of inspections. It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions," McClellan said in a written statement. "It is time for the Security Council to act."
Others in the administration were more dismissive of Iraq's latest pledge, with one senior official saying: "There will be no negotiating. The United Nations will act to lay out the requirements, or we will, but he (Saddam) gets no input." (Full story)
A second senior administration official noted various Iraqi violations of U.N. resolutions, including ones that deal with repression within Iraq and the failure to make reparations to Kuwait.
"If [Saddam] thinks this is about letting inspectors in, or playing the same old game of give a little when under pressure, he is about to learn differently," this official said.
Despite the White House's skepticism, U.N. officials hailed the move as a major step in the right direction.
"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of the inspectors, without conditions, to continue their work," Annan said in announcing the news.
Annan credited the Arab League with playing a "key role" in the negotiations, saying Moussa's "strenuous efforts" helped "convince Iraq to allow the return of the inspectors."
Annan said President Bush's speech last Thursday helped spur the international community in getting Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions.
"A lot has happened in this building since Thursday," Annan said in announcing the news. "I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community, as most of you heard almost every speaker in the General Assembly urge Iraq to accept the return of the inspectors."
Annan sent the letter on to the president of the Security Council for that body to "to decide what they do next."
Annan attached his own letter, saying it was the "indispensable first step" in assuring that Iraq no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction and in bringing about "a comprehensive solution that includes the suspension and eventual ending of sanctions that are causing such hardship for the Iraqi people."
Among the flurry of discussions Monday, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Russia is one of the permanent members of the Security Council with the power to veto any resolution, and it has opposed a unilateral U.S. military response.
"We both agreed about the need for inspectors to be readmitted without condition and without restriction, and we also completely agreed about the serious consequences which would be faced by Iraq if they fail to comply," Straw said after the 50-minute meeting with Ivanov.
Straw said there was "wide consensus" following Bush's speech "about the need for resolute action to be taken against Iraq -- hopefully by peaceful means -- to ensure their compliance with the will of the international community."
Before the news of the Iraqi decision, Powell said he was "encouraged" by the progress being made on the diplomatic front. He said he believed that there is "a great deal of pressure being put on Iraq to come into compliance."
"We will see whether or not Iraq understands the seriousness of the position it is in and whether it will respond to this direction from the Security Council," Powell said.
Correspondents Andrea Koppel, John King and Richard Roth contributed to this report.
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