WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Friday seized on a diplomatic opening from Iraq by renewing a U.S. demand for unfettered international inspection of suspected weapons sites.
The opening coincided with rising administration rhetoric against Iraq and refusal by President Bush to retract a threat to consider a military attack to topple President Saddam Hussein.
The White House reacted cooly, saying it does not change the administration's position on the need to oust Saddam.
What the Iraqi leader must do is unequivocally agree to inspections, "anytime, anywhere," not propose negotiations, Bush spokesman Sean McCormack said. "There's no need for discussion. It should be a very short discussion," he said.
The Iraqi gesture was not rejected out of hand, however.
In a letter to the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri invited the chief U.N. inspector, Hans Blix, to Baghdad for talks.
The letter hinted, but did not say explicitly, that the talks could lead to a resumption of weapons inspections after an impasse of nearly four years.
McCormack noted Friday that inspections, even if they were to resume, are only a means to the desired result of disarmament -- not a goal in and of themselves.
"Our policy remains the same. It has been the same since 1995 -- regime change," McCormack said.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Saddam has made overtures in the past that only turned out to be false promises.
Michael Anton, spokesman for President Bush's national Security Council, said, "Iraq started the Gulf War with an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor. Iraq lost the war and is in no position to negotiate the return of the inspectors."
"Iraq simply needs to comply with its responsibilities and accept inspection anywhere and any time," he said.
"But the goal is not and never has been inspections for their own sake," Anton said. "The goal is disarmament. Inspections are a means to the end of assuring that Iraq disarms and is fully compliant with the responsibilities the Iraqi government agreed to at the end of the Gulf War."
His statement said: "There are many reasons to believe Iraq has not disarmed. The burden is and should be on the Iraqi government to demonstrate to the international community that it has disarmed and is not in possession of weapons of mass destruction."
"If in fact Iraq has disarmed and possesses no weapons of mass destruction," it said, "then the Iraqi government should have no objection to weapons inspections, any time and at any place."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that Iraq was unlikely to permit the kinds of U.N. inspections needed to expose its weapons of mass destruction.
Arab leaders have asked the United States not to attack Iraq.
King Abdullah of Jordan, who has called a U.S. attack "somewhat ludicrous," met Thursday with Bush at the White House.
The president reaffirmed he was considering a wide array of "tools" to depose Saddam, and denounced the Iraqi leader again.
A Senate panel Thursday wrestled with the question of whether the United States should force Saddam from power -- especially given the high costs taxpayers could face in supporting a new Iraqi government.
Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's defense secretary, urged quick and decisive military action to remove Saddam.
"He has violated all of the promises which we accepted when we crushed his military in the Gulf war," Weinberger told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He cannot be believed and he is an implacable foe of the United States."
But Samuel Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, urged caution. He said the United States needs to consider the impact on neighboring countries, which allies support an invasion, who would replace Saddam, how much assistance a new Iraqi government would need and who would pay for it, he said.
"If we don't do this operation right, we could end up with something worse" than Saddam, he told the committee.