Iraqi letter hints at trouble down the road
Defiant reply blasts U.S., does not use word 'accept'
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Iraq's response to the United Nations is unclear on whether Baghdad has really accepted the U.N. resolution -- and that could mean a military confrontation is waiting.
Iraq's defiant nine-page letter, delivered Wednesday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, does not use the word "accept" but states that "we will deal with resolution 1441, despite its bad contents."
After seeing Baghdad's response, a senior U.S. State Department official said it was still not clear if Iraq had even said "yes" to the U.N. resolution demanding unfettered access for inspectors to search for weapons.
An advanced team of inspectors is due to arrive in Baghdad on Monday. (More on inspectors)
In the letter, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri wrote that Iraq will allow inspectors back in to show "that Iraq neither had produced nor was in possession of any weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical or biological -- throughout the time of the inspectors' absence from Iraq."
The letter says that in "dealing with the inspectors," the Iraqi government will consider any "improper approach in showing respect to the people's national dignity, their independence and security, and their country's security, independence and sovereignty."
Iraq has previously used similar language about "sovereignty" to keep U.N. inspectors out of presidential palaces and government ministries -- a decade-old sticking point for inspectors.
The letter also says that if the inspectors carry out their duties "professionally and lawfully, without any premeditated intentions, the liar's lies will be exposed" and the Security Council will be obligated "to lift the blockade and all other unjust sanctions on Iraq." (Full text of Iraq's letter)
The U.S. State Department said the Iraqi letter was only the first step toward compliance.
"We'll look at the letter, but that's all it is," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "Iraq has no choice but to comply with the resolution's terms. Iraq's letter is one of the requirements. The next ones are full disclosure and active cooperation with the inspectors."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pointed out that Baghdad's denial of having weapons sets up the possibility of a new crisis on December 8, the date Iraq is required under the resolution to disclose the full details of its weapons program.
"The next step is for Iraq to provide an accurate, full and complete declaration of all aspects of its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs by December the 8th," said Straw. "Let there be no doubt that any failure by Iraq to comply with its obligations will lead to serious consequences. For it is only the credible threat of force which has brought Iraq this far today."
Russia and China welcomed the announcement of the Iraqi letter, with Moscow also urging Baghdad to fully comply with the inspections and repeating its opposition to unilateral military action by the United States. (More world reaction)
President Bush met Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Annan at the White House and thanked him for his leadership in negotiating the resolution.
"The United Nations Security Council made a very strong statement that we -- (that) the world expects Saddam Hussein to disarm for the sake of peace and the U.N. stepped up to its responsibilities," Bush said.
After the meeting, Annan said he hoped that Iraq would fully comply with the resolution and allow weapons inspectors to do their jobs.
"The issue is not the acceptance, but the performance on the ground," Annan said.
Baghdad has promised to send another letter to Annan to outline how it believes the U.N. resolution violates international law.
The U.N. chief acknowledged that the language in the resolution does not clearly define the key phrase, "material breach." That's the point at which Iraq would be found to be not cooperating -- and also the point at which the United States has promised to use military force to disarm the Persian Gulf state.
Annan said the United States is "seen to have a lower threshold" for determining what constitutes a material breach, something that he warned could be interpreted as "a flimsy or hasty attempt to go to war." Concern that the United States would be quick to attack was among the reasons it took so long to get a resolution approved by the council, he said.
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting earlier Wednesday, Bush repeated his warning that the United States would have "zero tolerance" for any Iraqi interference with U.N. weapons inspectors.
"There's no negotiations with Mr. Saddam Hussein. Those days are long gone, and so are the days of deceit and denial," Bush said.
If Saddam fails to comply, "We will disarm him," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has indicated that a possible worst-case scenario would be for Iraq to appear to fully comply with the resolution while actually failing to comply -- leaving Washington with no basis for pursuing a military option. (Risks of phony 'cooperation')
The U.S. accuses Baghdad of possessing weapons of mass destruction -- biological, nuclear or chemical -- in violation of a cease-fire it signed after losing the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to approve the weapons-inspection resolution and gave Iraq a week to accept it.