Vienna, Oct. 12 (Reuters): Iraq appeared to give some ground to UN demands in a new letter delivered to weapons inspectors today, but it was far from clear that its latest statement would impress a sceptical US government.
The letter said Baghdad was ready to remove all obstacles to a return of UN inspectors to Iraq after a break of nearly four years. “We assert our complete readiness once again to receive the advance team (of UN inspectors) on October 19 as per our preliminary agreement with you and our readiness to resolve all issues that may block the road to our joint cooperation,” Gen. Amir al-Saadi said in the document, obtained by Reuters.
Two days earlier, al-Saadi wrote a first letter to chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that made no promises on most of the ground rules for inspections that Blix gave Iraq on October 8.
Al-Saadi said in his second letter that the first, which the United States denounced as evasive, should not have been viewed “as an objection” but “rather an explanation of our understanding for what we had agreed upon”.
He also said Iraq would permit UN inspectors to interview Iraqi citizens, though his letter made no mention of the United States’ demand that inspectors be allowed to take interviewees and their families out of Iraq.
The new letter acknowledges the inspectors’ desire for “unfettered access” to President Saddam Hussein’s eight palace sites, but makes no specific new concessions on these.
Under a 1998 agreement between the United Nations and Iraq, escorts are required to visit the sites and surprise inspections are forbidden.
ElBaradei and Blix implied in their October 8 letter to al-Saadi that they would welcome a removal of all restrictions on inspections of the presidential sites. “Regarding the presidential sites, we have taken note of your position,” al-Saadi said in an unofficial translation of today’s letter.
Iraq has agreed to grant inspectors access to the contested sites, but insists on sticking to the 1998 deal. The United States wants to scrap that deal and introduce a new UN resolution calling for tougher, more intrusive inspections backed up by the threat of swift military strikes if Baghdad fails to cooperate.
UN and US officials were not immediately available for comment on the latest Iraqi letter.
UN inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 on the eve of a US-British bombing raid launched to punish Baghdad for failing to cooperate with inspections.
In their letter to Iraq, Blix and ElBaradei detailed how they wanted Baghdad to facilitate “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted” access to suspected weapons sites.
In his first letter, al-Saadi did not refer to such issues as the right of inspectors to interview Iraqis and choose “the mode and location” of the interviews.
In today’s letter, al-Saadi said that the Iraq was willing to “continue to facilitate interviewing Iraqi citizens... in a manner that would guarantee the rights of Iraqi citizens under the law”.
Another unresolved issue is the need for UN inspectors to enter “no-fly zones”. In the first letter, Blix said his team may wish to use overflights by U-2 or Mirage planes, as it did in the past.
In the first letter, al-Saadi ignored that demand of Blix’s, saying only that no-fly zones enforced by US and British forces were illegal and should be abolished.
But in today’s letter, he said that Blix’s position as stated in his letter to Baghdad “can be accepted”.
On October 1, a delegation led by al-Saadi struck a deal with Blix and ElBaradei on the logistics of the inspectors' return.