Iraq appears to be seriously considering allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to return, more than three years after barring them from the country, a top U.S. diplomat says. 

"I think a lot of people are telling us the Iraqis are seriously thinking about this now," James Cunningham, the U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Wednesday. 

Since March, Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has held two rounds of talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the return of inspectors who left Baghdad ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes 3½ years ago and have been barred from returning. 

"As long as the secretary-general and his people ... think there's a chance of bringing the Iraqis to that point for whatever reason, we think it's a useful thing to do," Cunningham said. 

Cunningham said the Iraqis have had "ample opportunity" to exchange views with Annan, discuss technical issues with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, and consult Security Council members on other questions it raised. Some were political, including U.S. threats to topple Saddam Hussein and U.S. and British enforcement of "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq. 

"I don't think anybody thinks that this process should drag on for months," Cunningham said, noting that the 15 members of the Security Council were united in wanting the inspectors to return as soon as possible. 

The council imposed sanctions after Saddam's forces marched into Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions can only be lifted when U.N. inspectors declare that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs have been dismantled along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. 

The United States has threatened to use force if Saddam doesn't allow inspectors to return. 

Cunningham said the United States is pursuing "two tracks" toward Iraq that aren't necessarily linked: getting inspectors back into Iraq and improving the delivery of civilian goods to ordinary Iraqis by revamping the U.N. oil-for-food program, and pursuing the Bush administration's goal of getting rid of Saddam. 

"Not everybody yet agrees with us on the concept of regime change, but we're working on that," he said. "We don't have any plans or timing for a specific project, military or otherwise, that has yet been put into place to effect regime change, but we're looking at a lot of options." 

The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to revamp sanctions, capping a yearlong effort by the United States and Britain to get more humanitarian goods to the Iraqi people and try to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam's hands. 

The resolution allows the free flow of most civilian goods into Iraq and requires U.N. approval for delivery of civilian items with potential military use on a 332-page checklist. 

Initially, the two Western allies also wanted to plug Iraqi oil smuggling routes and post new monitors along Iraq's borders. But that proposal was dropped in July after Russia — Iraq's most powerful council ally, which wants sanctions suspended — threatened a veto. 

In a compromise reached in November, Russia agreed to adopt the dual-use review list. The United States, in turn, agreed to Russia's long-standing demand to discuss what steps Iraq needs to take to suspend sanctions. 

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov said after Tuesday's vote that the council should now discuss "a comprehensive settlement" of the sanctions issue — including spelling out the steps. 

But Cunningham seemed to back away from the commitment to Russia. 

On Thursday, Iraq grudgingly accepted the new changes to the sanctions — though it had wanted the restrictions lifted completely. 

The Iraqi leadership portrayed the U.N. measure as American manipulation of the Security Council, according to the official Iraqi News Agency. 

"Once again the Security Council, in its Resolution 1409, exposes its weakness and inability to face the American tendency toward harming Iraq," the news agency said, quoting a statement issued in a joint meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council and the Regional Command of the ruling Baath party.