TOKYO – Though quickly dismissed by Washington, Iraq's decision to allow the unconditional return of United Nations weapons inspectors was cautiously welcomed by many around the world Tuesday.
Russia and China, members of the U.N. Security Council with veto power over any resolution, said Baghdad's about-face was a victory for concerted international efforts.
"Now our main task is to ensure that the inspectors can get to Iraq as soon as possible and start their work," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said.
He said the inspectors would face "very difficult, great and laborious work."
China also welcomed Iraq's acceptance of renewed inspections.
"We hope that Iraq will comprehensively implement the U.N. resolutions to create the necessary conditions for the orderly and peaceful resolution of the Iraq issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.
France, another member of the Security Council along with Britain, said the United Nations should quickly send its inspectors back to Iraq.
"We must let Saddam Hussein's words speak for themselves," said Francois Rivasseau, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry.
"This will, of course, be discussed in the coming days at the Security Council, but we must not lose time, act quickly, send in the inspectors."
But Britain, America's closest ally, questioned Saddam's motives.
"This apparent offer is bound to be treated with a high degree of skepticism by the international community, coming only four days after the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz, had said precisely the opposite -- that they would not accept the reinsertion of weapons inspectors without condition," Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.
"To the extent that it represents any movement, this has only arisen as a result of the determined pressure by the international community, led by the United States and fully supported by the United Kingdom," Straw added.
Iraq said Monday it would allow the unconditional return of inspectors to assess whether the country has weapons of mass destruction. The decision followed warnings from President Bush that Iraq could face military strikes if it did not comply with several U.N. resolutions.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has been outspoken in his opposition to military action against Iraq, said Baghdad's offer was "very welcome."
"This was always our aim, to get the weapons inspectors back in, we always considered any other aim to be wrong," Schroeder told ZDF television.
In Iran, a Tehran Radio commentary called on both sides to observe restraint and to proceed within the framework of U.N. resolutions.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard called Iraq's move "a cautious first step" but also said Saddam Hussein should not be trusted.
"Given Iraq's history of misrepresentation, of pretending to do one thing and doing another, I believe the world should welcome this development with a great deal of caution and a great deal of reserve and even a touch of skepticism," he told Parliament.
In Asia, Iraq's announcement gave a boost to financial markets that have been weighed down for weeks by fears of war, traders said.
Stocks rose substantially in Tokyo where the dollar strengthened against the yen in early trading. Share prices also climbed in Sydney and Hong Kong but to a lesser extent than in Japan.
The announcement also sent ripples through the oil-producing world, lowering crude oil futures on Tuesday. That took some of the pressure to raise production off OPEC -- whose ministers were gathering in Japan this week.
Analysts say the price of oil has been inflated $2 to $4 a barrel on fears of war.
The White House called Iraq's decision a "tactical step" to avoid strong U.N. Security Council action.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in New York to meet Secretary of State Colin Powell, was equally skeptical.
"Inspectors and supervision only work with honest people. Dishonest people know how to overcome this easily," he told Israel Radio. "Anyway, we have to remember that the secretary-general presented a few other demands, this is not the only demand."
Not all leaders were as quick to question Iraq's motives.
"Iraq's move is the result of efforts by Japan and the international community. It is the first step toward inspections and realizing the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said in a statement.
In the largely Muslim nation of Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the United Nations should reciprocate by lifting its punishing sanctions, a view shared by Russia.