UNITED NATIONS – With talk of U.S. action against Iraq escalating, the Iraqi government Thursday invited the chief U.N. weapons inspector to Baghdad, hinting that inspections could be renewed after nearly four years.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan saying the government would like chief inspector Hans Blix and U.N. weapons experts to come to Baghdad "at the earliest agreed upon time" for technical discussions.
Annan has been trying to persuade the Iraqis to allow U.N. inspectors to return but three rounds of talks since March have failed to make any headway. At the end of the last round in Vienna on July 5 which Blix attended, Annan and Sabri agreed that technical talks would continue.
The letter from Sabri to Annan, dated Thursday, for the first time mentions the return of inspectors. Unlike many Iraqi letters to the United Nations, this one was moderate in tone and did not contain any political rhetoric.
It was sent on a day that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrapped up hearings on whether the United States should force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Witnesses at the two-day Senate hearings have generally agreed that Saddam's development of weapons of mass destruction pose a serious risk.
President Bush has called for Saddam to be removed, citing the threat posed by Iraq's development of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Administration officials have said no decision has been made on whether to invade Iraq, but there have been an increasing spate of media reports that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is examining military options.
There was no immediate comment to the Iraqi proposal from U.N. or U.S. officials.
Sabri said his government wants the talks between Blix and Iraqi experts to review the remaining questions about Iraq's weapons programs and decide on measures to resolve them "when the inspection regime returns to Iraq."
The Iraqi minister said the meeting would follow-up on Annan's suggestion in August 1998 "to conduct a comprehensive review ... and assess the degree of Iraq's implementation of its obligations."
"We believe that this review will be an important step towards the appropriate legal and technical assessment and treatment of the issues of disarmament and to establish a solid base for the next stage of monitoring and inspection activities ...," he said.
The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions can be lifted only when inspectors certify that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed, along with the long-range missiles that could deliver them.
The United States has warned Saddam he faces unspecified consequences if he does not allow the return of the inspectors, who left ahead of 1998 allied airstrikes meant to punish Iraq for blocking inspections.
In a report in January 1999, a month after inspectors were withdrawn, the U.N. inspection agency issued a 280-page report assessing the status of Iraq's disarmament.
That report mentioned priority issues that Iraq had not satisfactorily resolved such as its development of VX, a deadly chemical weapons nerve agent, its missile production capabilities, and many remaining question marks about its biological weapons program. But Iraq has repeatedly said all its weapons programs have been dismantled and it is fully disarmed.
The letter, which Sabri asked to be conveyed to the Security Council, said Iraq hopes the review of the outstanding issues will lead to agreement on "practical arrangements to resume cooperation" between Iraq and the U.N. inspection agency which Blix heads.
Sabri also expressed hope that it will lead to "a comprehensive solution" and implementation of all requirements that Iraq must fulfill under Security Council resolutions.
At their first meeting in March, Sabri gave Annan a list of 19 questions Iraq wanted answered -- some technical and some political. Blix addressed the technical questions at the second meeting in May and Annan sent the political questions to the Security Council.
These questions focused on lifting sanctions, U.S. threats against Iraq, the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq enforced by U.S. and British aircraft, and the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.
The Security Council chose not to respond to these questions -- which meant Annan went to Vienna with no answers for the Iraqis.
Sabri made it clear at the Vienna talks that Iraq would never agree to permit new inspections without "dual commitment" on the part of the United Nations.
"We do not accept that Iraq is deprived of its right to import one pistol while Israel has the biggest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in the region, threatening peace and security of the region and the world," he said.
But Thursday's letter made no mention of any political issues, referring only to the remaining disarmament issues.