LONDON – The British government said Thursday it is considering calling for a deadline to be set for Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.
The Foreign Office issued a statement that said the government would discuss this possibility with its allies, including the United States.
But it did not say whether the U.N. Security Council should set the deadline or what should be done if the Iraqi leader ignored such a deadline.
U.N. inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 and Iraq has barred them from returning. There has never been a deadline set for their return, and the British proposal would pressure the Iraqi president to allow them back or face any consequences.
The United Nations has failed to persuade Iraq to readmit inspectors despite three rounds of talks since March. Iraq says it wants to continue a dialogue about their return -- but with conditions U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has rejected.
President Bush has warned Iraq of unspecified consequences if the inspectors are not readmitted, and there has been increasing speculation of a U.S. military attack. The United States has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs and has called for Saddam's ouster.
In Washington, a White House official said he was not familiar with the possible British move and could not comment. But the official said U.S. policy remains that Saddam needs to disarm, give up programs for developing weapons of mass destruction and allow inspectors complete freedom to confirm disarmament.
Before word of the possible British demand broke, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, said the issue "is not about inspections."
"This is about disarmament and the threat that Saddam and his regime pose to the United States and the rest of the world," McClellan said.
"The goal is verified disarmament. And inspections is a means to that end," he said. "Iraq needs to live up to its obligations to allow inspections anywhere, any time, by anyone."
Britain, the main U.S. ally, has repeatedly said it is too early to decide whether to participate in a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq. But it also has agreed with Washington that something must be done about Iraq's alleged possession and development of weapons of mass destruction.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has faced strong opposition in his own Labor Party to such an attack, has said Saddam could resolve the standoff by giving unfettered access to U.N. inspectors and complying with U.N. resolutions.
Sanctions were imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs have been dismantled along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
The inspectors left Baghdad ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes in December 1998 to punish Iraq for not cooperating with inspections.
On Thursday, the British Foreign Office said it is considering a recommendation by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Commons in June to set a new deadline for the Iraqi ruler to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections.
In June, the committee said "we recommend the government propose a deadline for Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring Iraq to allow inspections of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs."
In Thursday's statement, the Foreign Office said: "Existing U.N. resolutions require immediate Iraqi compliance, including on weapons inspections. The government will nonetheless be giving further consideration to this recommendation."
It acknowledged that Iraq would be a "better place" without Saddam but stopped short of advocating a policy of "regime change" in Baghdad.
"The government's policy is to secure full implementation of the Security Council resolutions relating to Iraq. It is also the government's view that Iraq would be a better place without Saddam Hussein. As the prime minister has made clear, we are determined to deal with the threat posed by Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction," the statement said.
Asked about the statement, a foreign office spokesman told The Associated Press that the possibility of a call for deadline did not mark a change in the Blair government's current position about Saddam's weapons.
"We will be discussing this idea with our partners, but we would not wish to do anything that would weaken our current demand that Iraq should comply with U.N. resolutions now," he said.