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UN: Chief Inspectors Say They Are 'Cautiously Optimistic' On Iraq's Cooperation

The United Nations' chief weapons inspectors say they are cautiously optimistic that Baghdad will increase its cooperation on arms monitoring. The comments follow a visit by Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei to Iraq over the weekend, during which Baghdad suggested it could soon allow inspectors to use U-2 surveillance planes over its territory.

Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad is signaling that it may be ready to increase its cooperation with weapon inspectors as the United Nations prepares for a new assessment of Iraqi weapons programs at the end of this week.

Chief UN arms inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei visited Baghdad over the weekend for talks they characterized as positive and substantive.

Baghdad said it would respond to a key demand to allow overflights by U-2 surveillance planes. Iraq has refused such overflights since arms inspectors returned to work in November, saying it could not guarantee the safety of the planes. There are regular clashes between Iraqi air defenses and U.S. and British planes enforcing no-fly zones over parts of the country.

Iraq also handed over new documents to the UN arms monitors, some of which Baghdad said would help answer questions about its weapons programs that were not addressed by Iraq's declaration to the UN in December.

El-Baradei, speaking to reporters yesterday in Baghdad, called the most recent Iraqi actions signs that Baghdad may now be beginning to have a "change of heart" regarding cooperation on disarmament. "These were the three objectives we came for: full inspections, full Iraqi cooperation, [and] movement on the remaining disarmament issues. And I think we made good progress on all of these issues. We need to see a change of heart on the part of Iraq. I would say that I am seeing a beginning of a change of heart on the part of Iraq. There [is] an eagerness [that] we have seen for them to move on these issues," el-Baradei said.

El-Baradei also said that he and Blix now felt a sense of "cautious optimism" that they would see concrete action from Iraq in the immediate coming days. He also said he and Blix had impressed upon Iraqi officials the need for "quick and drastic change" to avert war.

The promises of stepped-up cooperation by Baghdad come as the chief weapons inspectors prepare to brief the Security Council on 14 February about whether Iraq is complying with UN demands to disarm.

The presentation will be the second report by the top UN weapons monitors since the new inspection process began. A report that Iraq is not cooperating with the weapons-inspection process could well result in the United States and Britain declaring that Iraq must be disarmed by force instead.

The two chief inspectors told the Security Council on 27 January that Iraq had failed to provide full and proactive cooperation as required under Security Council resolutions.

Blix said last month that Iraq had provided cooperation on procedural matters, such as allowing inspectors access to suspected weapons sites. But he added that Iraq had not provided cooperation on "substance," that is, declaring the extent of past and present programs for developing weapons of mass destruction and accounting for the whereabouts of all weapons produced.

U.S. officials responded to Iraq's new signals of cooperation over the weekend by questioning their sincerity. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Iraq may be attempting a last-minute deception to sway the chief inspectors to make a more favorable report.

Rice, speaking on a U.S. television news program, said "people are going to be very skeptical of anything that [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] does at this point, because an eleventh-hour conversion [last-minute signs he will cooperate] has been his modus operandi before."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Washington maintains its insistence that Iraq not only step up its levels of cooperation but reveal immediately and fully all the details of its suspected weapons programs. He said that the moment is quickly approaching when the Security Council must consider whether Iraq continues to be in breach of its obligations and punitive action must be taken.

Powell said on a U.S. television news program yesterday that the Security Council began a process in November to give Iraq a fair chance to comply on disarmament or face severe consequences. He said Iraq's time to prove its good faith is now almost over. "If he [Hussein] still didn't come into compliance, did not tell us what happened to these weapons, did not allow interviews to take place or allow reconnaissance to take place, then the council was to meet again and consider 'serious consequences.' We are approaching that moment, and everyone who voted for that resolution last November knew that this moment might come. And this is not the time to step back and ignore the fact that that moment is now upon us," Powell said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has said repeatedly in recent days that Washington will make its own decision on Iraq in a matter of weeks, not months, and that the inspection process should not be an extended one.

Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have also said in recent days that they would welcome a new UN resolution authorizing the use of force against if Iraq if the Security Council finds Iraq is not cooperating on disarmament.

But they have made it clear that Washington and London do not see a new UN resolution as necessary ahead of launching military action. News agencies report that the number of U.S. forces deployed near Iraq will reach 200,000 by the middle of this month.