U.N. Awaits Word Anytime on Friday

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday he'll be happy to receive Iraq's response to the U.N. resolution setting tough new terms for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors anytime on Friday.

Annan's comments came a day after his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said there were numerous interpretations for Friday's deadline — the minute the U.N. Security Council adopted the resolution, the minute Iraq was notified, the end of business Friday, or midnight on Friday. It is up to the Security Council to interpret its own resolution, he said.

"We haven't fixed any precise time, but I think everybody will be satisfied if we got a letter ... by the end of the day on the 15th," Annan told a news conference.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We're not getting hung up on minutes, but let's say the Iraqis have to comply Friday."

A Western diplomat said the resolution requires the secretary-general to immediately inform Iraq, which took place at 10:55 a.m. so the seven days should start from that time, but in practice, "nobody is going to declare breach" if a letter from Saddam Hussein's government arrives after that time.

"But frankly if he leaves it until 11 p.m. on Friday night, that will be seen as another sign that this man is just determined to play games. It wouldn't say much for his sincerity if he left it that late," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Anne Power, a spokeswoman with the British mission at the United Nations, said Britain interpreted the deadline to be seven 24-hour periods from the minute the resolution was adopted. That would mean that Iraq would have has until 10:17 a.m. EST Friday to respond.

Other Security Council members could have different interpretations, however. Deputy Ambassador Zhang Yishan of China, the current council president, said he was checking on the exact deadline.

According to the resolution, Iraq has until Friday to accept or reject the resolution, which calls for inspectors to be allowed to go anywhere at any time and threatens Iraq with "serious consequences" if it fails to comply. The Security Council approved unanimously the resolution last week.

Annan said he sent a letter to Iraq informing the government of the council's decision and he was expecting a formal reply.