UN Skeptical of New Iraq Offer of Arms Talks

(Reuters)–The United Nations on Friday viewed with skepticism Iraq’s invitation for technical talks on weapons inspections–saying Baghdad wanted to include issues that contradicted UN resolutions.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan planned to consult with the 15 UN Security Council members on Monday on the letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri proposing talks on possibly allowing inspectors to resume the task of ensuring that Iraq is not producing weapons of mass destruction–UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Both the United States and Britain were critical of the Iraqi move–but Russia and France welcomed it – an indication that the Security Council is split on what Annan should do.

The United States called on Iraq to permit inspectors back in Iraq with no conditions attached.

Annan welcomed the letter–but said "the procedure proposed is at variance with the one laid down by the Security Council in its 1999 resolution ," on inspection of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs–Eckhard said.

Iraq’s letter arrived on the day that US President George W. Bush on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment to a "regime change," a euphemism for toppling President Saddam Hussein.

Hinting that Iraq might allow inspectors back–Sabri said the talks could "establish a solid basis" for the next stage of monitoring and inspection activities.

The arms experts–allowed into Iraq following the Gulf War–left on the eve of a US-British bombing raid in December 1998. Comprehensive Review Sought

But Sabri said the Iraqi government needed a "comprehensive" review of arms issues–a condition that has been unacceptable to the United Nations.

Hans Blix–the Swedish diplomat in charge of the inspection teams–told Iraqi arms experts at a meeting in Vienna last month that a 1999 UN Security Council resolution required inspectors to be on the ground before an assessment on weapons of mass destruction could be made.

The resolution "says that Iraq must first agree to admit the weapons inspectors. They would conduct on-site inspections for a period of 60 days and then report to the Security Council with a proposed program of work," Eckhard said.

Although Annan–who met Sabri at talks in Vienna on July 4-5–said then he was open to further "technical" talks–the proposed new talks could be a repetition of three unsuccessful rounds of negotiations on inspections held this year.

Without mentioning US threats against Iraq–Iraq’s UN ambassador–Mohammed Aldouri–told Reuters: "This is a political and diplomatic way to defend ourselves. They are always accusing us of not permitting those people–and now we say we are ready to lay the ground to allow the inspectors."

He spelled out the main points of Sabri’s letter. "We want to know first of all that we and Blix (will discuss) what has been agreed already from 1991 to 1998 and what are the remaining issues," he said.

"Certainly he has in his mind some remaining issues he wants to know about," Aldouri said in the interview. "We hope he will come with a very precise plan with the whole issue."

Aldouri also repeated previous official commen’s from Baghdad that accused Blix of being under US influence.

"We know what kind of pressure is put on Blix by the American administration. Now he is being watched carefully by the CIA" under instructions of Paul Wolfowitz–the deputy US defense secretary–the ambassador said. ‘Unfettered Inspections’

White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would maintain its policy of seeking to oust Saddam–and said this was a separate issue from weapons inspections.

He said of the proposed talks: "It should be a very short discussion. What he (Saddam) should say is–’Yes–I accept any time–anywhere–any place unfettered inspections.’"

The Bush administration suspects Iraq has resumed building weapons of mass destruction.

Sabri’s letter helped drive prices lower on global oil markets on Friday–being viewed by traders as reducing the chances of military conflict in the oil-rich Middle East.

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