Iraqi and UN officials today conclude the first round of high-level talks aimed at ending an impasse over weapons inspections. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has repeatedly called for sanctions to be lifted and said that Israel, as well as Iraq, should be subject to any future inspections of weapons of mass destruction. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf set a hard-line tone on his first day of talks with UN officials on the deadlock over weapons inspections.
After nearly seven hours of closed-door talks yesterday (26 February), Sahaf told reporters the discussions focused on disarmament issues. He said he told UN officials of the hardships Iraq had faced under what he called the "Anglo-American" dominance of the UN Security Council.
"The session concentrated on Iraq's grievances, Iraq's explanations, how it sees the possibilities of finding a way out, and Iraq's demands in regard to any balanced solution to the situation between Iraq and the Security Council."
Sahaf said Iraq's main argument was that arms inspectors could only go back in the country in the context of regional disarmament. He referred to a section from a 10-year-old Security Council resolution -- number 687 -- which mentions the goal of establishing a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
Sahaf said Iraq wished to focus on this proposal for a regional disarmament scheme. He said under such a weapons-free zone, inspections should begin in Israel because of what he alleged was its arsenals of mass destruction.
Such a proposal is sure to face strong opposition from the United States and Britain.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Sahaf in private before turning the discussions over to his senior aides. Afterwards, he declined to discuss with reporters specific proposals of the Iraqi delegation.
Annan described the first day's session as a "tough discussion" and said he could not promise any miraculous breakthroughs in the talks.
The talks are due to end today, but Sahaf indicated there will be further rounds of talks.
Iraq has gained support from three permanent Security Council members -- France, Russia, and China -- for easing the sanctions. But they have joined the United States and Britain in saying UN inspections are a necessary step for sanctions to be fully lifted.
A spokesman for Russia's mission to the UN, Kirill Speransky, told RFE/RL yesterday that his country wants to see the sanctions lifted soon. But he reiterated that council resolutions require UN monitors to first verify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction.
Annan told reporters prior to the talks that an earlier team of UN inspectors -- known as UNSCOM -- had reported progress in eliminating Iraq's missile and nuclear programs. But he said UNSCOM indicated that considerable work remained on verifying the end of biological and chemical weapons programs.
"Whether Iraq has fully complied with Security Council requirements is not a judgment that is left to me. It's a judgment that the inspectors will affirm or determine once they've been able to get back into Iraq. But there's no doubt that some progress was made over the years when the inspections were going on."
Earlier, Sahaf told reporters that he had provided UN officials with documents showing Iraq no longer possessed illegal weapons. He said repeatedly that Iraq deserved to have sanctions lifted immediately.
"Iraq has met all the requirements of those mentioned resolutions and now it is the role of the Security Council to implement its mutual obligations toward Iraq. That means an immediate lifting of sanctions imposed on Iraq."
Sahaf said he held discussions with the current president of the UN Security Council, Ambassador Said Ben Mustapha of Tunisia. It is not clear whether he will meet any other Council representatives during his visit to UN headquarters. Iraq has already ruled out meeting with officials of the new UN weapons inspection mission, known as UNMOVIC.
When this initial round of Iraqi-UN talks finish later today, Annan is expected to report to the Security Council and then await its guidance on further negotiations with Iraq.