Saddam holds surprise top-level meeting to decide on arms inspectors


IRAQ: President Saddam Hussein held a day-long meeting with his inner circle yesterday to decide whether to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

There was heightened expectation in Baghdad as the meeting continued last night as it is rare for President Saddam to call a conclave of both of Iraq's main political bodies: the six-member Revolutionary Command Council and his cabinet.

The survival of the regime could rest on the outcome. An Iraqi official, although he was unaware of whether a decision had been made, said: "We expect them (inspectors) to be allowed back in."

There had been rumours in diplomatic circles late last week that President Saddam was close to making up his mind, but the meeting took Baghdad by surprise. Ministers cancelled their meetings and an international conference being held in the capital was postponed for 24 hours.

All major decisions in Iraq rest with President Saddam. The recent contradictory statements about the inspectors from Iraqi leaders immediately below the President have been seen in the West as part of Iraqi manoeuvring to delay a decision and divide international opinion.

Government officials in Baghdad said, however, the confusion was partly because figures such as the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tariq Aziz, and the Vice-president, Mr Taha Yasin Ramadan, were trying to cover all bases as they were unsure which option President Saddam would go for. Mr Aziz is keen to allow the inspectors back.

There was an air of anticipation in Baghdad as government officials believe President Saddam will make a television announcement soon.

The UN inspectors, who had been checking whether Iraq retained biological, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction after the 1991 Gulf war, left Iraq in 1998, claiming their investigation had been obstructed by Iraqi officials.

Allowing the weapons inspectors back could help reduce the chances of a US-led war against Iraq.

However, a western diplomat based in Baghdad cautioned yesterday: "It may be two months too late for Saddam."

The diplomat said the Iraqi leadership should have been offering conciliatory gestures much earlier and now the US position had hardened.

Outright rejection of UN demands would make war a near-certainty, and see a shift of some international opinion behind the US and Britain.

President Saddam could fudge, agreeing to allow the inspectors back but attaching conditions, such as a timetable for the UN lifting of a decade-old sanctions regime. - (Guardian Service)

Iraq is preparing an announcement on US and UN demands that it let back UN arms inspectors, a senior Arab official said last night.

"A text is being prepared for announcement in Baghdad at any time," said the Arab official, who asked not to be named.

French Foreign Minister Mr Dominique de Villepin said there were rumours Iraq would agree to let the inspectors return. - (Reuters)