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Iraq: UN And Baghdad Officials Hopeful After Talks On Resumption Of Inspections

UN and Iraqi officials have agreed to meet next month to continue talks aimed at resolving an impasse over weapons inspections in Iraq. Both sides say they found their first round of talks yesterday constructive, but there has been no immediate signal that Iraq is willing to permit weapons inspectors into the country anytime soon. At the talks, Iraq raised concerns about the lifting of sanctions and of the no-fly zones, but analysts say there is little chance the United States will permit concessions on those issues.

United Nations, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There has been no immediate signal that the first high-level talks in more than a year between the United Nations and Iraq produced any movement on the issue that has divided the two sides for more than three years -- the return of UN weapons inspectors.

Both sides characterized the talks yesterday at UN headquarters in New York as useful and said they will resume in mid-April.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters after three hours of talks that both sides had a positive exchange of views in which Iraq raised its concerns related to inspections.

"Our concerns are legitimate because they are stated in the Security Council resolutions, so we tackled these issues and hopefully we shall continue in the same spirit in April."

Iraq has repeatedly said it has complied with Security Council resolutions requiring it to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. The council has said the status of these weapons can only be confirmed by UN inspectors and that 11-year-old sanctions against Iraq will continue until inspectors are allowed to finish their work.

A statement from the UN spokesman's office later said Iraq raised concerns such as the lifting of sanctions, the removal of no-fly zones -- patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes -- and establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

These are concerns similar to those raised last year when former Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Sahaf linked inspections in Iraq to inspections of alleged nuclear weapons facilities in Israel.

But there were also differences in the latest talks. Unlike last year, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was accompanied at the talks by his chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and Iraq's delegation included General Hussan Amin, the country's main liaison with UN inspectors.

The UN statement also said the two sides discussed the issue of more than 600 Kuwaitis and other nationals missing in Iraq since the Gulf War. It said Iraq has agreed to return some missing Kuwaiti property through the United Nations.

Diplomats at the UN say Iraq's decision to hold the high-level talks is a direct result of U.S. threats to Iraq over its weapons of mass destruction. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a committee of the U.S. Congress yesterday that President George W. Bush has no plans on his desk to wage war against Iraq. But Powell said Bush is seeking to put the world on notice that Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Annan told reporters before his meeting with Sabri that he hopes diplomacy will be given a chance to solve the dispute with Iraq. But he also said he will press for Iraq to obey Security Council resolutions on inspections.

"I wouldn't want to see a widening conflict in the region. I think we have our hands full with the tragedy that is going on there already. So I would want to see a situation where we are able to resolve our differences diplomatically and that Iraq comes into compliance. And we can move on this. If that is done, I don't think the council will take any further action, but let the resolution stand and move ahead with its implication."

But some analysts remain skeptical about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's willingness to agree to inspections unconditionally. Nancy Soderberg is a former U.S. diplomat at the UN and vice president of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that specializes in conflict prevention.

She tells RFE/RL that Saddam is trying to negotiate out of a difficult position but that the international community must remain firm. She said Iraq's record with the UN is one of deception and noncooperation.

"[Annan's] never been successful in having an agreement from Iraq that is sustainable and [that provides] full cooperation with the UN inspectors. I think there is a great amount of skepticism that the Iraqis will agree to that now. They're clearly going to try to buy for time, add new conditions, have negotiations go forward and the secretary-general is there to try to move negotiations forward, but he does not have the power -- nor do I think is he inclined to try -- to put new things on the table."

Soderberg said she doubts the United States will agree to any dramatic changes in the no-fly zones over Iraq or in the sanctions in exchange for new inspections. But Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, says Iraq's diplomatic overtures of late to both its neighbors and the United Nations show it might be willing to let the inspectors return.

Sick, a former member of the White House National Security Council, told RFE/RL he believes the Iraqis are clearly responding to U.S. indications of military action. He said he does not expect a move by the United States toward mounting an attack anytime soon, but that pressure is growing on Iraq.

"At this point, the burden is really on Iraq to come up with a formula that will let the UN do its work and that will undercut what I think otherwise is a U.S. plan to attack."

The UN Security Council resolution in 1999 that created the latest weapons inspection team says sanctions can be suspended 120 days after Iraq has been found to be cooperating with inspectors. There would be renewable periods of suspended sanctions after that. But the Security Council still needs to define what specific aspects of the sanctions would be suspended.

The previous UN weapons inspection team -- known as UNSCOM -- had found general compliance on Iraq's nuclear weapons program. But the current inspection team -- known as UNMOVIC -- says major concerns remain over Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs.

(Aziz Farag of Radio Free Iraq contributed to this program.)