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Iraq: Reaction Mixed On Iraqi Offer To Readmit UN Weapons Inspectors

Iraq agreed in a letter delivered to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan late Monday that it will accept the unconditional return of weapons inspectors amid threats of a U.S. attack. RFE/RL looks at reactions to the letter among the five permanent UN Security Council member countries, the European Commission, and the Arab League.

Prague, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Reaction from governments around the world today to Baghdad's offer for the immediate and unconditional return of United Nations weapons inspectors has been a melange of skepticism, caution, and relief.

A similar mix of reactions was apparent among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China.

Washington immediately dismissed Baghdad's announcement as an attempt to prevent the UN Security Council from authorizing U.S.-led military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement that Iraq's letter to the UN Security Council late yesterday was a "tactical step" aimed at avoiding strong UN Security Council action. The White House statement called the Iraqi letter "a tactic that will fail."

McClellan also said U.S. President George W. Bush still wants a new, effective UN Security Council resolution that will "actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to the world." He urged the UN Security Council to push forward with such a resolution.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged caution about the Iraqi offer, saying that Saddam Hussein's regime has a long history of "playing games" and flouting UN resolutions. "This letter and this apparent offer is bound to be treated with a high degree of skepticism by the international community, coming only four days after the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz, had said precisely the opposite, that they would not accept the reinsertion of weapons inspectors without condition," Straw said.

Straw also said the Iraqi offer does not eliminate the need for a new, toughly worded UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. "We shall continue to work with our international partners for an effective resolution before the Security Council. The [existing] resolutions are now at least four years old and if we are going to have the reintroduction of the weapons inspectors without conditions and without restriction, we believe that we need a new resolution and we are working with our international partners to achieve that," Straw said.

Although the British government has put more emphasis on reviving UN weapons inspections than on Washington's stated goal of ousting Saddam Hussein from power, Blair remains the only European leader to give full support to Bush's hard line on Iraq.

But Straw suggested today that Britain would not support a U.S.-led attack to oust Saddam Hussein's regime provided weapons inspectors can confirm Iraqi weapons programs have been dismantled. "The focus of the international community is, and remains on, the threat posed by the Iraqi regime by their possession and their use of weapons of mass destruction. That is the whole focus of the Security Council resolutions up until now and it will be the focus of any new resolution," Straw said.

France today also registered caution about the Iraqi offer. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said the UN Security Council must be vigilant and "hold Saddam Hussein to his word."

But Villepin said Baghdad's letter has changed the challenge that the United Nations faces. He said all options remain open, but a new Security Council resolution demanding the return of inspectors may not be necessary any longer.

Villepin said France will discuss what is necessary on Iraq with other members of the Security Council after inspectors have been allowed to return.

The reaction of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was positive and receptive. But Ivanov urged Baghdad to ensure that UN inspectors are allowed to restart their work soon. "We welcome the decision. Russia has always backed the return of the weapons inspectors to Iraq and now our main task is to see that these inspectors can return to Iraq in the very nearest future and start their work," Ivanov said.

Ivanov also said the Iraqi letter shows the importance of diplomatic initiatives within the United Nations to resolve the dispute. "It is of principal importance that today, through our mutual efforts, we've succeeded to remove the threat of a military scenario around Iraq to return to political means," Ivanov said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, speaking today to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, expressed relief on the part of the government in Beijing.

Tang said the Iraqi decision is what the international community, including China, has always hoped to see. He also said China will work with other countries through the United Nations to reach a political settlement of the Iraqi issue.

Kong Quan, a spokesman for Tang, told a press briefing in Beijing today that Iraq's offer is the result of international cooperation. He urged Iraq to follow through with its latest promise so that an "objective and scientific report" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction can be made quickly. "Iraq's decision to allow the weapons inspectors to return to their country is an active and positive step toward complying with related UN resolutions. We hope that Iraq will follow through with the agreement in a thorough and conscientious manner, so that conditions can be created for the peaceful resolution of the Iraq problem," Kong said.

In Brussels, a spokesman for European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten said the Iraqi offer is long overdue. But the spokesman, Gunnar Wiegand, refused to comment on the skeptical reactions out of Washington and London other than to say that the issue is, first and foremost, for the UN Security Council members to judge.

Wiegand said the European Commission hopes the Iraqi offer is, indeed, the first step toward defusing the crisis. He also welcomed the role that Arab countries played by adding their voices to those calling for Baghdad's compliance with its obligations under the UN resolutions.

For its part, the Arab League took credit today for Iraq's agreement to readmit weapons inspectors.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mussa said in a statement released from league headquarters in Cairo that Iraq's decision was a response to efforts by Arab states and officials, including demands issued by Arab foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher also noted the role of Arab ministers in pressuring Baghdad to allow the return of inspectors. "The Arab foreign ministers appealed to the Iraqi government to accept the unconditional return of the inspectors and they have now responded positively. The secretary-general has been discussing [this]. I think he has forwarded this letter to the members of the Security Council," Maher said.

Maher said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told him that the United States plans to study the Iraqi letter closely and decide what needs to be done next. "So I hope that this is the beginning of the thawing of the crisis," Maher said.

In the first public comments by Iraqi officials since delivering the letter, Deputy Prime Minister Aziz questioned whether allowing the return of inspectors would end the crisis.

His comments echoed earlier remarks from Baghdad predicting that Bush's administration would attack Iraq even if inspectors are allowed back to determine whether nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons are being stockpiled.