UNITED NATIONS – Iraq is free of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, Saddam Hussein told the United Nations in a speech read Thursday by his foreign minister. The White House dismissed the speech as a "disappointing failure."
It was the first comments attributed to the Iraqi leader since Iraq's surprise announcement this week that it would accept the unconditional return of international weapons inspectors nearly four years after they left. The decision, which followed a tough speech on Iraq last week by President Bush, has divided the major powers on the U.N. Security Council.
"Our country is ready to receive any scientific experts, accompanied by politicians you choose to represent any one of your countries, to tell us which places and scientific installations they would wish to see, particularly those about which the American officials have been fabricating false stories, alleging that they contain prohibited materials or activities," Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told the world body, quoting the Iraqi president.
"I hereby declare before you that Iraq is clear of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons," Sabri said, further quoting Saddam.
The speech to the U.N. General Assembly -- one week after Bush addressed the gathering -- was greeted with loud applause by diplomats from around the world.
But in Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the speech "presented nothing new and was more of the same."
"The speech is an attempt to lure the world down the same dead-end road that the world has traveled before and, in that, it represents a disappointing failure by Iraq," Fleischer said.
The Iraqi president said he wanted a comprehensive solution to its problems with the United Nations to "bring to an end the cyclone of American accusations and fabricated crises against Iraq."
The speech heavily criticized the United States and Bush for trying to link Iraq in some way to the tragedy of Sept. 11.
It charged that "the American propaganda machine, along with official statements of lies, distortion and falsehood" was being used for "inciting the American public against Iraq, and pushing them to accept the U.S. administration's schemes of aggression as a fait accompli."
Iraq called on the United Nations to help protect its sovereignty in the face of possible U.S. military action.
And it charged that the United States was working in concert with Israel and was trying to control the Middle East oil supply.
"The U.S. administration wants to destroy Iraq in order to control the Middle East oil and consequently control the politics as well as the oil and economic policies of the whole world," the foreign minister said.
He also charged that the United States was fomenting problems with Iraq to prevent the Security Council from lifting economic sanctions and to keep the Middle East from becoming a nuclear-free zone as called for in council resolutions.
The United States, he said, does not want to embarrass Israel -- which he referred to as "the Zionist entity" -- or deprive it of the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons it possesses.
Despite Iraq's offer to admit the inspectors, the United States and Britain have begun crafting a draft resolution that would tighten the timetable Iraq has to comply with previous resolutions and authorize force it fails to do so.
But the two English-speaking allies will need to overcome strong opposition from France, Russia and Arab states, which believe there is no need for such a move before inspectors can test Iraq's sincerity on the ground.
The Security Council was set to discuss Iraq later Thursday.
In Washington, Bush asked Congress for authority to use military force to disarm and overthrow Saddam, saying the United States will take action on its own if the Security Council balks.
The president sent to Capitol Hill his proposed wording for a resolution, a late draft of which would, according to White House officials, give him permission to use "all means he determines to be appropriate, including military" to deal with Saddam.
"If you want to keep the peace, you've got to have the authorization to use force," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.
And Bush lashed out talks Iraq is holding with the United Nations about resuming inspections: "There are no negotiations to be held with Iraq. ... I don't trust Iraq and neither should the free world."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met late Wednesday with Sabri, who said Iraq hoped the return of inspector would be a "first step toward a comprehensive solution to the crisis in the relations between the United Nations and Iraq and the lifting of the brutal regime of sanctions which has been killing our people for 12 years."
In a statement, Annan said that Sabri had pledged his government's full cooperation on finalizing arrangements for the swift return of inspectors.
U.N. sanctions were imposed and inspectors sent to Baghdad at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to disarm Iraq and certify that the country's weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed.
But after seven difficult years, often peppered with crisis over access to sites and cooperation, inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 ahead of punishing U.S. and British airstrikes.
At the time, the United Nations disbanded the first inspections team amid allegations that some members were spying for the United States. A new inspection team was established and Hans Blix of Sweden was appointed to head the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission.
Blix has said he could have people on the ground as soon as he is able to complete details for their return with Iraq in talks scheduled later this month in Vienna.