As speculation grows that Washington intends to try to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force, Baghdad this month has invited the United Nations' top weapons inspector to visit for talks. The invitation has set off a new round of international debate over whether Baghdad might now be ready to cooperate with the UN on arms inspections or whether it is merely seeking to delay any U.S. military action.
Prague, 6 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In terms of substance, Iraq's invitation to chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix to come to Baghdad offers nothing new.
The invitation was issued by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in a letter to the UN last week. It urges Blix and members of his team to come to Baghdad for a new round of technical talks. The letter said the talks should be a review of all pending issues regarding Iraq's alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and could lead to a "solid basis" for the return of arms inspectors, who have been barred from Iraq since December 1998.
Few details of the letter have appeared in the media, but Sabri gave some idea of the scope of these "pending issues" when he visited Jordan today. Speaking to the press, he called the return of the inspectors just one part of a "comprehensive settlement" to the crisis that Iraq wants to negotiate. "We are for implementing [UN] Security Council resolutions, the last of which is Resolution 1382, which called for a comprehensive settlement of the Iraqi issue. So the return of inspectors is only one part. The other part is lifting the sanctions, respecting Iraqi national security, dealing with the regional security in this region, and dealing also with the deliberate damage done by Britain and America to the infrastructure in Iraq," Sabri said.
Those kinds of sweeping demands have derailed three previous rounds of UN-Iraq talks on arms inspections since March. The last round, in Vienna, ended early last month with the UN stating that any future talks -- as yet unscheduled -- would have to be only about readmitting the arms inspectors.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan answered Sabri's invitation by asking Iraq to clarify its offer. He also indicated that before it could be accepted, he expected Baghdad to first show a willingness to let arms inspectors return unconditionally. Annan told reporters yesterday that, "We have very clear requirements and if Iraq were to honor them, I think the invitation could be considered."
But even though Annan has received the letter with diplomatic caution, the Iraqi invitation has set off a lively international debate because of its timing. The letter comes as speculation has increased over the past months that Washington is planning military action against Baghdad if arms inspectors are not given immediate access to its suspected weapons-development programs.
Gerd Nonneman, a regional analyst at the University of Lancaster in England, said the debate is fueled by the fact that no one knows Iraq's exact motives in making the invitation.
Nonneman said the letter could be an attempt to ward off mounting U.S. pressure by signaling a readiness to now finally begin serious talks on readmitting arms inspectors. Or it could merely be a delaying tactic designed to postpone any U.S. action and to stoke divisions in the international community -- and even in America -- over U.S. President George W. Bush's Iraq policy. "The suggestion that [Saddam] can negotiate and discuss with Blix -- well, on the one hand, it's initially intended as a crisis-management policy. It's a case of playing for time, seeing whether by being seen to move a little he can take off some of the heat. And also by playing for time, you then increase the chance [that] the already existing divisions within the U.S. and especially in the rest of the world about Iraqi policy [will] increase and become even more accentuated," Nonneman said, adding, "But there is also the other element, which we have seen in the past, which is that if [Saddam] is under enough pressure and there is really no other way out, then at times he has gone further in agreeing to the externally imposed conditions than he had originally wanted."
That uncertainty about Baghdad's intentions has been reflected in the reactions in many capitals to the Iraqi letter. The U.S. and Britain, which are the most skeptical about Iraq's readiness to readmit arms inspectors, have dismissed the letter as a delaying tactic. U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that: "There is no need for discussion. What there is a need for is for the regime in Baghdad to live up to its commitment to disarm."
Similarly, a British Foreign Office spokesman told Reuters that: "Saddam has a long history of playing games. As his track record shows, he does not deliver."
But Moscow, which has close trading ties with Iraq, urged the international community to accept the invitation as the best way to restore cooperation between Iraq and the United Nations.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov told Interfax yesterday that: "We believe talks on technical issues [regarding] the resumption of international monitoring and inspections in Iraq...would be a first step on the road to full restoration of cooperation. We will do everything possible to support this positive development."
At the same time, French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marie Masdupuy said Paris hoped the "dialogue between the United Nations and Iraqi authorities will continue so that Baghdad allows a return of the inspectors."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, while not addressing the letter directly, said yesterday that Germany does not intend to contribute either military assistance or money to an American campaign in Iraq. He said he supports continued international pressure on Iraq rather than a military strike.
As debate over the letter continues today, it is too early to predict whether follow-up exchanges between the UN and Iraq could lead to progress on readmitting arms inspectors. But it is clear that the issue of arms inspectors is likely to resurface repeatedly in the coming weeks as Washington and Baghdad wage a continuing public-opinion war.
That battle saw one unexpected turn last weekend as Iraq followed up its invitation to Blix with an offer to members of the U.S. Congress to discuss arms issues in Baghdad. That invitation, contained in a letter from Sadoun Hammadi, the speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly, appears to be an effort to pit American legislators against the Bush administration. Hammadi promised the U.S. lawmakers would have free access to any site where it is alleged that weapons of mass destruction are being developed.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle immediately rejected the offer and reprimanded Iraq for "playing games." "The U.S. Congress isn't looking for an invitation. We're asking Iraq to grant the UN weapons-inspection team the full, unfettered access they need to do their job," Daschle said.