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Iraq: No obstacles to inspections

White House skeptical

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VIENNA, Austria (CNN) -- The Iraqi government sent a letter Saturday to officials overseeing the U.N. weapons inspection programs, reiterating an earlier pledge to allow inspectors to operate in the country on the United Nations' terms, a U.N. spokesman told CNN Saturday.

The letter was meant to clarify another letter sent Thursday in which the Iraqis said they were willing to accept U.N. weapons inspectors "as soon as possible," but not addressing specific demands that they provide unrestricted access to weapons sites.

"Some in the press have interpreted the letter as evasive," said Mark Gwozdecky, a spokesman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. group responsible for tracking down reports of nuclear weapons.

"The letter today is clearly an attempt to set the record straight and make it clear that the first letter and now the second letter was meant to confirm that they see eye-to-eye with us on the agreements that were reached," he said.

However White House officials were skeptical.

"This is more of the same games they have been playing for the past 10 years," said a senior administration official. "They continue to play games of denial and deception."

In two days of talks here two weeks ago, the Iraqis met with representatives of both the IAEA and UNMOVIC -- the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which is responsible for pursuing reports of biological and chemical weapons -- and agreed to a series of arrangements related to the inspectors.

Last Tuesday, the heads of the two agencies, Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix, sent Iraqi Gen. Amir al-Saadi a letter confirming the substance of the meeting, Gwozdecky said. Al-Saadi responded Thursday with a letter saying Iraq was ready to receive U.N. weapons inspectors "as soon as possible," but not addressing specific demands from Blix that the Iraqis provide unrestricted access to weapons sites.

Gwozdecky said ElBaradei read Saturday's letter "and interpreted it as a positive, more explicit confirmation of the content of the talks in Vienna."

Gwozdecky said he did not have a translation of the two-page letter, which was written in Arabic.

In his first letter, al-Saadi, who led the Iraqi delegation in Vienna, told Blix that Baghdad agreed with the joint statement of October 1 and Blix's statement October 3 to the Security Council.

But al-Saadi appeared to stop short of accepting Blix's guidelines for facilitating the work of the inspectors.

In his October 8 letter, Blix cited Iraq's agreement to provide "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to sites -- such as acceptance for interviewing Iraqi officials or scientists, and approval of U-2 spy flights.

Al-Saadi said Baghdad would have difficulty complying with some of Blix's requests, such as guaranteeing the safety of inspectors in the no-fly zones now patrolled by U.S. and British jets.

"Should the illegal no-fly zones be canceled, there will be no difficulty for us to give assurances to the two agencies, for the safety of air operations in all of Iraq's air space," the letter said.

"We're not surprised," a U.S. official told CNN about Baghdad's first response. "Obviously the Iraqis want to delay and deceive."

--CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.

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