UNITED NATIONS – In order to "remove any doubts" it still has weapons of mass destruction, Iraq agreed Monday to allow the return of weapons inspectors, according to a letter sent to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the U.S. dismissed as a stalling tactic.
"The government of the republic of Iraq has based its decision concerning the return of inspectors on its desire to complete the implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions and to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction," the letter said.
"This is not a matter of inspections. It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement. The skeptical statement called it "a tactical step by Iraq," likely aimed at dividing the U.N. Security Council and eroding support there for U.S. aims on Iraq.
The United States demanded a "new, effective U.N. Security Council resolution that will actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region and to the world."
"We've made it clear that we are not in the business of negotiating with [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein," White House communications director Dan Bartlett told Reuters. "We are working with the U.N. Security Council to determine the most effective way to reach our goal."
"I am pleased to inform you of the decision of the Government of the Republic of Iraq to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq without conditions," the Iraqi letter said. It was signed by Iraq Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and delivered to Annan, who made the announcement.
It came days after Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly debate and said that Iraq must comply with Security Council resolutions or face a military strike.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has been lobbying the other 14 members of the council to support a resolution that would mandate the return of inspectors and permit the use of force should Iraq refuse.
There was no mention of the United States in the Iraq letter although it alluded to talk of a possible attack by calling on the members of the Security Council, which includes the United States, to "respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Iraq."
Iraq said it was responding to an earlier appeal by Annan for Baghdad's compliance with Security Council resolutions calling for unfettered access to inspectors, and to an appeal by the Arab League and other Islamic countries.
Annan forwarded the letter to all 15 members of the council and to the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix.
It was not clear when the council would meet to consider the letter, a first step before sending inspectors back. Blix has said he could have inspectors on the ground within days but it would take his teams several months to set-up on the ground before they could begin monitoring Iraqi sites.
In a statement, Blix welcomed the Iraqi letter and said he was ready for immediate talks with the Iraqis "on the practical arrangements for the resumption of inspections."
In Baghdad, there was no word of the news on state-run media but the letter was released following high-level meetings Saddam held earlier Monday with top officials in his Baath party and his Cabinet, including his deputy prime minister and vice president.
"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of inspectors without conditions to continue their work," a pleased Annan told reporters, nearly four years after inspectors left Iraq.
"There is good news," Sabri said moments earlier. The Iraqi foreign minister refused to comment further and left U.N. headquarters after a day of negotiations on the text of the letter.
Under Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. Inspectors left the country in December, 1998, ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes to punish Iraq for not cooperating with inspections.
Since then, Iraq has said it would only allow inspectors to return if the sanctions were lifted. The five powers on the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, Russian, France, and China -- have remained divided over what the next steps should be.
But on Thursday, Bush told the U.N. General Assembly, at the opening of its annual debate, that the world body could no longer tolerate Iraq's defiance of council resolutions.
"We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and hopes of mankind."
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed al-Douri, had sharply criticized Bush's remarks, saying the speech lacked credibility and was motivated by revenge and political ambition.
But Annan credited Bush late Monday.
"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan said.
The secretary-general also said the Arab League had played a key role in bringing about the Iraqi response and he thanked the league's chief, Amr Moussa of Egypt, "for his strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq to allow the return of the inspectors."
After the Persian Gulf War ended, Iraq accepted the U.N. resolution requiring it to end its weapons of mass destruction programs and let inspectors verify its compliance.
In 1997 Iraq demanded the departure of American inspectors on the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM. The Americans complied but returned a few weeks later. Iraq ended the inspections a year later but they were allowed in for one more month in mid-November 1998. They left a month later, concluding Baghdad wasn't cooperating.
The United States and Britain launched four days of intense airstrikes while the United Nations replaced UNSCOM amid allegations that members of the team were spying for the United States. The new entity was named the U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission and Blix assumed the post of executive chairman in March 2000.
Since then, Iraq had continued to violate successive U.N. resolutions calling for the unconditional return of inspectors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.