United Nations Iraq agreed Monday to allow the unconditional return of U.N. weapons inspectors, a reversal coming days after President Bush warned Baghdad to comply with U.N. resolutions or face military action. The White House dismissed the offer as a tactical move.
"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," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in the statement. The statement called it "a tactical step by Iraq," likely aimed at dividing the U.N. Security Council and eroding support there for U.S. aims on Iraq.
The statement demanded 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."
Four years after U.N. weapons inspectors left Baghdad, Iraq said in a letter addressed Monday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that its decision to allow the inspectors' return was taken "to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."
"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," said the Iraqi letter. It was signed by Iraq Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and delivered to Annan, who first made the announcement.
It came days after Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly debate and said that Iraq must comply with Security Council resolutions or face a military strike.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has been lobbying the other 14 members of the council to support a resolution that would mandate the return of inspectors and permit the use of force should Iraq refuse.
There was no mention of the United States in the Iraq letter, although it alluded to talk of a possible attack by calling on the members of the Security Council, which includes the United States, to "respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Iraq."
Iraq said it was responding to an earlier appeal by Annan for Baghdad's compliance with Security Council resolutions calling for unfettered access to inspectors, and to an appeal by the Arab League and other Islamic countries.
Annan forwarded the letter to all 15 members of the council and to the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix.
It was not clear when the council would meet to consider the letter, a first step before sending inspectors back. Blix has said he could have inspectors on the ground within days but it would take his teams several months to set up on the ground before they could begin monitoring Iraqi sites.
In a statement, Blix welcomed the Iraqi letter and said he was ready for immediate talks with the Iraqis "on the practical arrangements for the resumption of inspections."
In Baghdad, there was no word of the news on state-run media, but the letter was released following high-level meetings Saddam had earlier Monday with top officials in his Baath party and his Cabinet, including his deputy prime minister and vice president.
"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of inspectors without conditions to continue their work," a pleased Annan said Monday.
"There is good news," Sabri said moments earlier. The Iraqi foreign minister refused to comment further and left U.N. headquarters after a day of negotiations on the text of the letter.
Sabri and Arab League chief Amr Moussa had met late with Annan to transmit the letter from the Iraqi government.
Under Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. Inspectors left the country in December 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes to punish Iraq for not cooperating with inspections.
Since then, Iraq has said it would only allow inspectors to return if the sanctions were lifted. The five powers on the Security Council the United States, Britain, Russian, France and China have remained divided over what the next steps should be.
But on Thursday, Bush told the U.N. General Assembly that the world body could no longer tolerate Iraq's defiance of council resolutions.
"We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and hopes of mankind."
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed al-Douri, had sharply criticized Bush's remarks, saying the speech lacked credibility and was motivated by revenge and political ambition.
But Annan credited Bush late Monday.
"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan said.
The secretary-general also said the Arab League had played a key role in bringing about the Iraqi response and he thanked the league's chief, Amr Moussa of Egypt, "for his strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq to allow the return of the inspectors."