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UN: Officials Cautious In Advance Of Meeting With Iraq

Amid some signals of flexibility from Baghdad, UN officials have repeated they will insist that talks later this week between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri focus on the return of weapons inspectors. The head of the UN monitoring team, meanwhile, reports that he now has 180 trained experts preparing for the day when they are authorized to resume inspections of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile facilities.

United Nations, 5 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With some signs emerging that Iraq might allow a conditional return of weapons inspectors, UN officials are repeating that talks with Iraq's foreign minister this week will focus on Iraq meeting its obligations to carry out Security Council resolutions.

A newspaper owned by the son of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ran a front-page editorial on 4 March indicating Iraq might allow limited inspections if there is a time limit and they are followed by a lifting of sanctions.

The Security Council adopted a resolution nearly two years ago that offered to consider suspending sanctions against Iraq for periods of about four months if Iraq shows full cooperation with inspectors and answers questions on disarmament. Iraq has never recognized the resolution, insisting that it has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction. But Baghdad requested this week's talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan without special conditions. Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri are to meet on the morning of 7 March at UN headquarters.

The UN secretary-general told reporters yesterday that the basis of the talks will be the "implementation of Security Council resolutions and the return of the inspectors." Annan would not say what indications he has received from the Iraqi side.

"[The return of inspectors] is very much on my agenda," Annan said. "Let's be patient. On the 7th [of March], we will know what they think."

The new president of the UN Security Council, Norwegian Ambassador Ole Peter Kolby, told reporters yesterday he hopes for progress in the talks. He said the Council wants to see the resumption of inspections, but he declined to say what he expects from the meeting: "I feel it makes no sense to predict optimism or pessimism. We just have to listen to what they are saying. They know what is expected of them."

The 1999 resolution setting up the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission -- known as UNMOVIC -- was adopted at a time of deep divisions in the Council. France, Russia, and China abstained on the vote for the resolution and have often sought to soften the impact of sanctions on Iraq.

But there has been greater Council unity of late. The sanctions regime comes up for review at the end of May, and Council diplomats are confident there will be unanimous support for overhauling the program. A new proposal, accepted by every state but Russia so far, calls for sanctions to focus on a list of goods seen as having military applications. All other goods would be allowed into Iraq unfettered.

Iraq opposes the new list and continues to call for sanctions to be lifted. But Russia and China recently reiterated that inspections must resume before a suspension of sanctions can be discussed. France has made similar comments.

A spokeswoman for France's UN Mission, Ginette de Matha, told RFE/RL yesterday that France supports Annan's efforts at seeking a return of inspectors.

"I think the secretary-general was very clear when he announced the talks, what he was expecting," de Matha said. "As far as I know, France is totally on the same line as him."

The United States and Britain -- who along with Russia, China, and France are the other permanent members of the Security Council -- are skeptical of Iraq's intentions and have repeatedly said Iraq must unconditionally comply with the Council resolution on inspections. Iraq has increasingly been mentioned as a new target in the U.S. antiterrorism campaign.

A Council diplomat told RFE/RL that U.S. officials will meet with Annan prior to his discussions with Sabri to register their concerns about Iraq's obligations.

An Iraqi official said recently that Baghdad is ready to let in a team of British arms inspectors if Britain can say where they suspect Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are being produced. A British government spokesman said Britain is not interested in the offer.

Depending on the progress made in the 7 March talks, Iraq has indicated it is willing to resume talks on 5 April, after it attends the summit of Arab heads of state in Beirut on 27-28 March.

Meanwhile, a report to the Council yesterday from UNMOVIC director Hans Blix notes that there are now 180 trained weapons inspectors available for work in Iraq. Blix said the inspectors are continuing to review the unresolved disarmament issues in Iraq. He said they are also studying satellite imagery provided by various nations of activities and infrastructure changes at sites subject to monitoring in Iraq.

Blix said the College of Commissioners overseeing UNMOVIC's work met in Geneva two weeks ago. He said the commissioners stressed the importance of unity in the Security Council in helping to renew inspections and carry them out thoroughly.