Iraq is ready to discuss the return of U.N. weapons inspectors -- provided talks take place without conditions, a top Iraqi official said in a broadcast Thursday.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told Abu Dhabi Television that Baghdad was willing to discuss the return of inspectors who left in December 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes and have been barred from returning.

"Iraq is ready to discuss the return of the U.N. weapons inspectors, provided that any dialogue with the United Nations takes place with no preconditions," he said in an Aug. 10 interview aired in full Thursday.

"At the same time, Iraq is ready for the worst," he added, an apparent reference to U.S. threats of possible military action to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and of unspecified consequences if inspectors are not allowed to return.

Iraq invited chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix to visit Baghdad for technical talks on Aug. 1. However, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Iraq that it must accept the U.N. Security Council's terms for the return of weapons inspectors before such talks take place.

Iraq has not yet replied to Annan's letter.

U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until inspectors certify that Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed.

On Monday, Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, said there was no need for weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. He called U.S. claims that Saddam still has weapons of mass destruction a "lie."

But Ramadan's comments appeared to back down from his strong opposition to the return of inspectors.