Senior United Nations weapons inspectors and Iraqi arms experts are meeting in Vienna today to work out details surrounding Baghdad's offer to allow the return of inspectors to Iraq. The talks are a critical part of Baghdad's effort to avert military action that has been threatened by the United States if Iraq refuses to meet its disarmament obligations under UN Security Council resolutions.
Prague, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi officials and United Nations weapons monitors began talks in Vienna today on resuming inspections in Iraq.
The meeting follows an offer made by Iraq earlier this month -- under the threat of a U.S.-led military attack -- to allow the return of UN inspectors after a four-year absence. Baghdad has promised that the UN monitors would have unfettered access to suspected weapons sites.
Hans Blix, chairman of the UN inspection mission, said the talks -- planned to last two days -- are focusing on practical details of the return of experts from his UN team and from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. "There are many [topics] that we'd like to go through. They are known and can be deduced from resolutions and agreements of the past. It has to do with access to Iraq, entry into Iraq, and the accommodation of inspectors, the headquarters that we have in Baghdad, movement inside of Iraq, security of inspectors, taking of samples, and taking samples out of Iraq, etc.," Blix said.
Blix said key issues about the inspections themselves also will be discussed today. One critical issue is the right of the UN inspectors to make unannounced visits to Iraq's many presidential palace compounds. "We would like to ensure that if and when inspections come about, we will not have clashes inside. We would rather go through these things outside [of Iraq] in advance. And we've even said that we would not deploy inspectors to Iraq until we have had talks about these things," Blix said.
UN inspectors left Iraq four years ago in a dispute over Baghdad's resistance to inspections at presidential palaces. Existing UN resolutions say that the inspections must respect Iraq's sovereignty. And Baghdad has argued in the past that inspections of presidential compounds are a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Since Iraq's recent pledge to allow unfettered access by UN inspectors, officials in Baghdad have qualified their offer by saying that the teams must follow existing UN resolutions.
Britain last week released a dossier compiling information about Iraq's alleged programs for weapons of mass destruction. That dossier included aerial photographs of a presidential compound that Washington and London suspect is being used for illegal weapons testing. British intelligence experts say the photos show a missile launch site that proves Iraq has been trying to extend the range of its offensive missile systems.
Blix told reporters today that he does not expect Iraqi presidential compounds to be declared off-limits. "I will not predict what the discussions will reveal. But we are reporting. I am reporting to the [UN] Security Council on Thursday, and, of course, you realize it is the Security Council that wants to have the first news. Therefore, I am a little restrained in what I will say here," Blix said.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, said that unannounced visits will play a key part in the inspections the IAEA nuclear experts hope to make. "There are different types and methods of conducting inspections. It also depends on whether you are conducting a nuclear inspection or a chemical and biological inspection. A lot of similarities, too. The ones that are critical are the unannounced inspections. There, we do not want to indicate where we are going. We do have an Iraqi escort come along with us. But he does not know where we are going. He is there to make sure the door opens when we arrive at that facility," Fleming said.
Fleming said the issue of unfettered access involves the right to interview Iraqi workers and inspect documents. "Very important also is access not only to buildings but access to people. We need to be able to conduct interviews with anybody we want to see, as well as to look through documents," Fleming said.
Upon arrival in Vienna, members of the Iraqi delegation declined to comment. The delegation is led by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's technical adviser, General Amir al-Saadi.
U.S. diplomats today are continuing efforts aimed at winning international support for a new, toughly worded UN Security Council resolution. The United States and Britain want the UN to authorize the use of force if Iraq continues its refusal to comply with its disarmament obligations under existing UN resolutions.
On 28-29 September, senior U.S. diplomats met with officials in Moscow and Beijing -- both permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council -- to try to win support for a new resolution.
France has emerged as the leader of a coalition in Europe that insists there must be UN authorization for military strikes against Iraq. France has proposed two new UN resolutions. The second one would clear the way for military strikes if Baghdad hinders the inspectors who are allowed in under its first proposed resolution.
In Brussels, where European Union foreign ministers are meeting today, the EU's foreign-policy and security chief, Javier Solana, said he expects Europe to continue with its position that a UN route must be followed. "At this point in time, the members of the Security Council are still debating the possibility of a [new] UN Security Council resolution. Today, as you know, is an important day. In Vienna, [there] will be talks between Mr. Blix and the Iraqi representative. Let's see how they follow as the days evolve. But for us, the [EU] position is still to follow the route of the UN," Solana said.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who has publicly opposed any unilateral military strikes by the United States, told reporters in Brussels today what he thinks must happen before the EU supports a UN resolution authorizing the use of force. "If the conclusions of the [weapons] inspectors should be positive, and they prove there is really a danger with mass-destruction weapons, then if the Security Council decides, then maybe we can support [military strikes]. But not now in any case, no," Michel said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that the key question facing the international community is the rapid return of UN inspectors to Iraq. Putin said it is also important to find a lasting political solution on Iraq within the framework of the UN Security Council.