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Iraq Readmits Arms Inspectors

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Iraq Readmits Arms Inspectors

By Alistair Lyon

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iraq has offered to readmit weapons inspectors unconditionally but Washington's determination to hold President Saddam Hussein's feet to the fire could split the U.N. Security Council.

The 15-member council meets on Tuesday to review the Iraqi decision, which has drawn a hostile response from the Bush administration and a cautious welcome elsewhere.

The United States, whose declared policy is to seek Saddam's removal, vowed to work for a tough new U.N. resolution after Iraq announced on Monday it was ready to allow the return of inspectors after barring them for nearly four years.

But Russia said no new resolution was necessary as long as the inspectors went back to work.

"We intend to go forward with our resolution," a senior State Department official said. "The resolution should find Iraq in breach of its obligations, if that remains the case.

"It should point a way forward in terms of what Iraq needs to do and should make clear what will happen if Iraq doesn't go that way," he said, adding that only concerted world pressure and the threat of military action had made Saddam blink.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said late on Monday that the council had several options to consider, but insisted that Iraq could not be let off the hook. "Saddam Hussein must now be held to his words," he declared.

The inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 just before a U.S.-British bombing blitz designed to punish Baghdad for its alleged failure to cooperate with them.

The White House treated the Iraqi move with disdain, saying Saddam could not be trusted.

"This is a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action. As such, it is a tactic that will fail," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

But many countries are likely to seize on Iraq's offer, conveyed in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as removing any immediate justification for military action.

"We have managed to deflect the threat of a military scenario and to steer the process back to the political channel," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

No new resolutions were needed, he said, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

Russia, France, China, Britain and the United States are permanent members of the Security Council and hold veto power.

ARAB RELIEF

"This is the beginning of a process of easing the tensions," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said.

Arab countries, which view Israel's occupation of Palestinian and other Arab lands as a greater threat to regional stability than Iraq, oppose any attack on Baghdad that lacks U.N. Security Council authorization.

Australia, which takes part in the multinational naval force blockading Iraq in the Gulf, cautiously welcomed Baghdad's decision.

"On the face of it, without wishing to be locked into this position, it does sound like a promising development," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Melbourne radio.

Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, welcomed the news and said he was ready for immediate talks in New York on the practical arrangements for the resumption of inspections.

Under the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire terms, the inspectors must verify the dismantling of any Iraqi programs for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles before sanctions can be suspended.

The State Department official, who was with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations, said Iraq's go-ahead for renewed inspections was at best a bid to show it was ready to take the first step, albeit under fierce pressure.

"At worst, it's another false promise, as we have seen so many times," he said.

Iraq had not promised to fulfill all its obligations, allow full and unfettered access to the inspectors, disclose all its banned arms programs or disarm, he argued.

"The first step in any kind of dialogue is for the (Security) Council to make clear through its resolution what inspections without conditions means, what compliance means and what Iraq needs to do," he said.

The Iraqi letter from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said Baghdad wanted to fulfill council resolutions and to "remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."

It said this was a first step toward a "comprehensive solution" that should include the lifting of U.N. sanctions imposed for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Blix has a staff of 63 in New York, some of whom could go to Baghdad quickly to analyze Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs. Another 200 trained experts from 44 nations are on call and could be put to work within weeks.

Nuclear arms inspectors are handled by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Commission.

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