Russia, US Clash in UN over Iraq Arms inspection.(Main News)

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) Russia and the United States clashed openly on Tuesday over whether the United Nations must give arms inspectors stronger powers as Iraqi and UN experts kicked off talks on the mechanics of allowing the inspectors to resume a task abandoned nearly four years ago.

The disagreement, at a news conference at UN headquarters in New York, suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has started to make cracks in the broad consensus against him by backing down when faced with the threat of US attack.

It also revealed a split between those governments whose main concern is to avert a US attack on Iraq and those who believe the priority is to disarm Iraq at any cost.

US President George W. Bush said the UN Security Council "must not be fooled" by Iraq's offer, while the Pentagon planned for possible war and arms inspectors, responsible for checking Iraq for nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic weapons, prepared to return.

Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix met top Iraqi arms experts on Tuesday briefly to discuss the inspectors' readmission. The two sides will meet again in Vienna during the week of Sept. 30. A precise date has not been set.

Bush told the United Nations last Thursday it should no longer allow Iraq to defy resolutions dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, particularly those on weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq responded on Monday with an unconditional offer to readmit inspectors. They had left Iraq in December, 1998, on the eve of US-British bombing raids to punish Baghdad for alleged noncooperation and have not been permitted to return.

UN inspectors who did go into Iraq during the 1990s complained of hindrance and deceit by the Iraqis, while Baghdad accused them of spying for the United States.

The government in Baghdad said its offer had robbed the United States of any reason to wage war. Iraqis in the street welcomed their government's sudden shift, but some feared it would not stop the United States from attacking.

World oil prices fell on Tuesday as traders' fears of imminent military action receded. International benchmark Brent crude oil fell 55 cents to $27.97 a barrel.

The focus at the United Nations on Tuesday was whether the Iraqi offer had removed the need for a new resolution to give the inspectors new and stronger powers.

Russia, one of five council members with veto power, told the news conference that the Iraqi offer made further action by the Security Council unnecessary at this stage and that the inspectors did not need additional instructions.

"From our standpoint, we don't need any special resolution," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said. "All of the necessary resolutions are to hand."

"What procedures they should follow, well we know those too. All of these matters were agreed to during the preliminary inspections (in the 1990s)," he added.

But Bush was adamant, saying: "The Security Council must act, must act in a way to hold this regime to account, must not be fooled, must be relevant to keep the peace."

The Bush administration, which wants to get rid of Saddam and does not trust Iraqi promises, said it wants a Security Council resolution spelling out Iraq's obligations and stating the consequences for failure to comply.

"The only way to make sure it is not business as usual and to make sure it is not a repeat of the past ... is to put it in the form of a new UN resolution," US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the news conference in New York.

"It's quite appropriate ... for the Security Council to consider the circumstances under which they might return, what they must be free to do, what additional instructions may be appropriate," Powell added.

Canada backed the US position but Egypt and France tended toward the Russian position. The European Union and the United Nations adopted stances midway between the two. …