Under mounting diplomatic pressure, Iraq has agreed to the unconditional return of United Nations weapons inspectors. The Iraqi government sent a letter late yesterday to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreeing to the first inspections since 1998 and to the immediate resumption of talks about how the inspectors will be able to carry out their work in the country.
United Nations, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Iraq has agreed to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into the country for the first time since 1998, without conditions and without delay.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri late yesterday handed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a letter saying Iraq wanted to remove any doubts that it still possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Annan announced last night that the Iraqi government said in the letter it had decided to allow weapons inspectors to return to work in Iraq "without conditions." "And I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying [their] decision to allow the return of the [arms] inspectors, without conditions, to continue their work, and [Iraq] has also agreed that they are ready to start immediate discussions on the practical arrangements for the return of the inspectors to resume their work," Annan said.
The letter also said Iraq had viewed the inspections as an "indispensable" first step toward the eventual lifting of 12-year-old UN sanctions.
Iraq called on Security Council members to "respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of Iraq."
The decision marked a sharp reversal for Iraq, which has maintained it does not possess weapons of mass destruction and has repeatedly accused the United States of politicizing United Nations Security Council actions toward Iraq.
But U.S. President George W. Bush on 12 September told the UN General Assembly that Iraq has sought to rebuild its biological-, chemical-, and nuclear-weapons infrastructure and posed a threat to global security. Annan told reporters that speech had an impact on world leaders. "I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community and, as most of you heard, almost every speaker in the General Assembly urged Iraq to accept the return of the inspectors," Annan said.
Annan sent the Iraqi letter to the 15 UN Security Council representatives, who will now decide on the course of action for inspectors. Since Bush's speech, council members have been holding mostly bilateral meetings about crafting a new, tough resolution on Iraqi inspections.
Council members have expressed general agreement about the need for a tougher resolution but not about what consequences Iraq should face in the event of noncompliance.
Swedish diplomat Hans Blix has headed up the new UN inspection team, known as UNMOVIC, for the past 2 1/2 years and now has a staff of 60 professionals at UN headquarters and another 220 people trained to carry out field inspections. Blix was quoted by the German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" during the weekend as saying a first group of inspectors could be on the ground in two weeks if Iraq agreed to admit them. He said it would take a month for a full deployment of UNMOVIC in Iraq.
Blix's spokesman, Ewan Buchanan, told RFE/RL after the Iraqi decision was announced that the Security Council has been repeatedly advised of UNMOVIC's readiness to mount new inspections. "We have been saying in our formal reports to the [Security] Council for more than a year that we are ready to do the tasks the council sets for us and we've been doing training, we've been looking at the logistics end, getting ourselves, to quote Blix, 'as far out on the launching pad as possible,'" Buchanan said.
Buchanan declined any immediate comment on Blix's plans but stressed the importance of talks on the logistical aspects of inspections, which Iraq now agrees to undertake right away. "We continue to believe that there was a need to see eye to eye on these so-called practical arrangements for the inspections," Buchanan said.
The Iraqi decision came amid a growing consensus at the United Nations that Iraq must permit UN weapons inspectors unconditionally and immediately.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters yesterday he was encouraged by the response of diplomats to President Bush's speech on the need for tough Security Council action against Iraq. "The political dynamic has changed and a there's a great deal of pressure now being placed upon Iraq to come into compliance with the UN mandates of the last 12 years, but it's going to be the new terms in the resolutions that I hope we'll be able to complete in the not-too-distant future," Powell said.
The United States wants a new Security Council resolution to be adopted in the coming weeks that threatens coercive action against Iraq if it fails to permit UN inspectors under specified conditions. Iraq has refused to permit UN-mandated inspections since 1998 and says it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Powell stressed yesterday that Security Council members were only at the beginning stages of talks on what the resolution should say. "This is a consultation. It is a negotiation and we're just now starting to look at language, so I would not want to prejudge what my council colleagues might agree to."
France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, told reporters yesterday that France continued to believe that a two-stage process would be most effective. Such a process would involve an initial Security Council resolution demanding the return of weapons inspectors and a second resolution outlining the consequences of an Iraqi refusal.
Shortly before the Iraqi announcement yesterday, Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham told reporters of the prevailing mood at the United Nations. "Iraq knows that generally there is unanimity in the United Nations that they should admit the UN inspectors. There may not be complete agreement as to what the consequences would be as to a failure to admit inspectors, but it's clear that there's clear, practical unanimity on the fact they must admit inspectors," Graham said.
Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov that both countries -- both permanent members of the Security Council -- are agreed about what he called the "extent of the breach" of council resolutions by Iraq.
Straw said Britain and Russia, which have clashed on the council over Iraq in the past, are both agreed about the need for unconditional inspections and the serious consequences Iraq would face if it failed to comply.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz offered the first Iraqi reaction since the government letter was delivered to the UN. Speaking today before an international "solidarity conference" in Baghdad, he said Iraq's decision to readmit UN inspectors was based solely on the advice of its allies in the Arab world and beyond. "This [readmittance of weapons inspectors] is the demand that we have heard from our Arab brothers, friendly officials from the countries that have expressed their opinion on this issue, and also from the nonaligned-movement countries and also other blocs of friendly nations," Aziz said.
The Iraqi deputy prime minister also said that Baghdad, in allowing the return of inspectors, has thwarted any justification for a U.S.-led attack. Aziz said "all the reasons for an attack have been eliminated."