Iraq agrees to return of arms inspectors - Annan


Iraq has agreed to allow the return of United Nations arms inspectors, the UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan, announced early today. The offer was unconditional, he added.

"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying their decision to allow the return of the inspectors without conditions to continue their work," he said.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mr Naji Sabri, had earlier delivered the letter to Mr Annan in the presence of the secretary general of the Arab League, Mr Amr Musa.

The Iraqis had also agreed "to start immediate discussions on the practical arrangements for the return of the inspectors," Mr Annan said. The Secretary General said that last week's UN General Assembly speech by President George Bush had "galvanised the international community".

"Almost every speaker in the General Assembly urged Iraq to accept the return of the inspectors," Mr Annan noted. He thanked those who had helped achieve the apparent breakthrough.

"I would want to pay particular tribute to all the states of the Arab League who played a key role in this," he said. He singled out Mr Musa, for "his strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq to allow the return of the inspectors".

The letter from Baghdad will be given to Bulgaria, current chair of the Security Council, of which Ireland is a member. The Council will then have to consider whether the offer is sufficient, and sufficiently watertight, to allow the inspectors return and scale back the pressure on Baghdad.

There was no substantive reaction this morning from the White House but the US Administration is likely to treat the offer with caution. The White House communications director, Mr Dan Bartlett, said President Bush was "not in the business of negotiating with Saddam Hussein".

He described the offer as a tactic aimed at giving "false hope to the international community that he means business this time. Unfortunately, more than a decade of experience shows you can put very little into his words or deeds."

Earlier yesterday, it became clear that the UN was poised to increase the pressure on President Saddam Hussein. Diplomatic sources told The Irish Times that the Security Council was expected to adopt a resolution next week to send the inspectors back to Iraq, but to hold in reserve a second resolution, authorising the use of force, for three weeks.

Members of the Security Council were expected to have little difficulty supporting the first resolution, which would demand unfettered access for arms inspectors, the sources said.

The advantage for the US in agreeing to the timetable is that the first resolution would unite the world body behind its demand to Iraq to comply with earlier arms resolutions, and make a second authorising "all necessary measures" more acceptable if it failed to comply.

"A second resolution would only be necessary if there is non-compliance," a diplomat at the UN said. "We hope it won't come to a second resolution. At any stage Iraq might blink in the face of strong UN pressure. If they don't, there would be more unified support for a second resolution authorising action against Iraq.

"To have an international coalition to take action against Iraq, you need a unified UN behind you. It would show Iraq to be out of step and would minimise the potential destabilisation of the Middle East."

However, US Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell is urging other council members not to vote for a resolution on tough new inspections if they do not support enforcement, possibly with military force, US officials said. The US side would prefer to have one resolution containing an ultimatum but will accept a two-resolution process, diplomatic sources said. Throughout yesterday, the US kept up diplomatic efforts with Mr Powell seeking Arab support for a resolution to readmit inspectors to maximise pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia said it could allow the use of US bases against its neighbour but not in the case of a unilateral attack on by the US.

Mr Powell resumed talks with Security Council members as Bush administration officials pressed the US Congress to back whatever action the White House thought necessary.

Mr Powell said he hoped that intensive work on drafting a resolution for the Security Council could begin by the end of this week. The measure should give Iraq "a matter of weeks" to comply with long-standing UN resolutions on its weapons program, he said.

US officials will today be studying the Iraqi offer in detail. They will want to satisfy themselves that if inspectors return, they will not be harassed, as they were before, but are able to carry out their work without obstruction.