BAGHDAD, Iraq – Facing a possible U.S.-led attack, Iraq asked the chief U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad for a fresh round of talks amid diminishing prospects for a diplomatic solution.
A senior adviser to President Saddam Hussein wrote to Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, inviting them to return to Baghdad in advance of a key U.N. Security Council session on Feb. 14.
The adviser, Amer Al-Saadi, suggested the talks could focus on improving cooperation between the two sides and on "methods of disarmament verification," the Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers told reporters an advance five-month food ration had been handed out to Iraqi families as a precaution -- evidence of growing suspicion among Iraqi officials that an attack has become inevitable.
Blix, in charge of the chemical, biological and missile inspection programs, and ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear control agency, said they had not received the invitations and would not say whether they would accept.
The proposed visit would come four days ahead of the inspectors' next report to the Security Council on whether Iraq has complied with a council resolution requiring it to allow inspectors to hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
On Monday, Blix told the council that after two months of inspections he did not believe Iraq had "genuinely" accepted disarmament. Iraqi officials later pledged to make greater efforts to cooperate.
Blix and ElBaradei held two days of talks in Baghdad on Jan. 19-20 before they delivered the report.
Talk of war dominated top-level meetings in Washington on Thursday as the United States increased pressure on its allies to support efforts to disarm Saddam.
President Bush met with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who endorses the hard line on Iraq. In an Oval Office session, Bush put allies on notice that he will not wait long to act, describing the window as "weeks, not months."
But in a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham cautioned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq without U.N. endorsement would "risk consequences."
The U.S. and British governments have threatened to take military action against Saddam if he does not disarm. The Iraqis deny maintaining any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs.
The United States and Britain are rushing troops to the Gulf in the biggest U.S. military buildup in the region since the 1991 war to back up threats of military action if Iraq fails to cooperate.
Also Thursday, two Iraqis suspected of links to banned weapons programs refused to be interviewed privately by U.N. inspectors. So far, no Iraqis have agreed to meet with inspectors without an Iraqi official present.
Bush has accused Saddam of threatening scientists with death if they agree to private interviews.
The United Nations has been pressing Iraq for private interviews in hopes the subjects would be more forthcoming with information. Iraq insists it is encouraging private interviews and no one has accepted.
Another unresolved issue raised by Blix is Iraq's refusal to allow flights by U-2 spy planes in support of the inspections.
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said the United Nations should employ "neutral means" as a substitute for American U-2 aircraft. Russia has offered to provide surveillance planes.