Iraq to Accept UN Inspections; U.S. Officials Skeptical

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-NEWS AND NEGOTIATIONS

UN WEAPONS INSPECTORS can return to Iraq "without conditions," Baghdad said September 16, reversing a stance that has barred inspectors from the country for almost four years. The announcement followed a September 12 speech by President George W. Bush before the UN General Assembly, calling on the United Nations to enforce its resolutions on Iraqi disarmament and suggesting that, if it did not, the United States would take unilateral action.

UN Security Council Resolution 687, passed in 1991, required Iraq to submit to UN weapons inspections and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs, but Iraq has refused entry to inspectors since they were withdrawn just prior to U.S. and British air strikes in December 1998. The Bush administration has repeatedly cited Iraqi noncompliance as a potential justification for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

After Iraq and the United Nations failed several times to reach agreement earlier this summer, Iraq finally sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on September 16, four days after the Bush speech, saying it would allow inspectors to return. At first, Baghdad did not promise unfettered access to all sites, but on September 24 Amir al-- Saadi, an adviser to Hussein, stated that UN inspectors "would have unfettered access and [can go] wherever they want to go," according to a Reuters news report.

In addition, when asked during a September 23 press conference about the possibility that Iraq would restrict inspectors' access, Annan replied that he viewed the Iraqi letter as "a commitment" for inspectors to work in "an unimpeded manner." Annan had advised the Iraqis on the letter.

How much freedom inspectors will actually have in Iraq, however, remains unclear. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri read a letter from Hussein before the United Nations September 19 asserting that Iraq "is clear" of weapons of mass destruction and stating that the inspectors are expected to "respect" Iraqi "national security and sovereignty." Iraq has used these conditions to restrict inspectors' access in the past. The letter also stated that Iraq wanted to discuss inspections "on a comprehensive basis," echoing demands the country made in August.

A day after Iraq sent the letter to Annan, members of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) met with an Iraqi delegation to hold "preliminary talks related to the resumption of inspections," according to an UNMOVIC statement. UNMOVIC, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Iraqi delegates are scheduled to meet again in Vienna from September 30 to October 1. UNMOVIC is responsible for verifying Iraq's dismantlement of its chemical, biological, and prohibited missile programs, and the IAEA is responsible for Iraq's nuclear program.

One of the items on the agenda for the Vienna meeting is Iraq's backlog of semiannual reports, which it was required to provide to inspectors, listing its holdings of dual-use equipment and materials related to weapons of mass destruction. The reports, which Baghdad has said it will deliver to UNMOVIC at the meeting, include information on the location and use of the equipment and materials since 1998.

According to an informal UNMOVIC paper circulated in the Security Council September 19, an advance party of inspectors could arrive in Baghdad as early as October 15. The paper estimates UNMOVIC will need two months to procure equipment and recruit inspectors, as well as conduct preliminary inspections of certain sites, before it can officially begin inspections and determine what key disarmament tasks remain.

Iraq's announcement represents significant progress from recent diplomatic exchanges between the United Nations and Iraq. The last meeting between Iraqi officials, Annan, and UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix took place in Vienna July 4-5 but failed to reach an agreement for returning inspectors. …