| An Iraqi policeman stands guard outside Canal hotel, the UN headquarters in Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad/Washington, Nov. 14 (Reuters): Weapons inspectors were preparing today to return to Iraq after it reluctantly accepted UN demands, as neighbouring states let out a sigh of relief in the hope the region might escape war.
Iraq’s most influential newspaper, controlled by President Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday, said, however, the threat of conflict was far from over.
“Our allies and brothers should realise that the problem with the American administration and its ally Britain is not over. Perhaps it is resuming again,” Babel newspaper said.
It said Iraq’s compliance with a UN resolution calling for a tough new inspection regime reflected its “goodwill”, adding it should be rewarded by the lifting of the sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The paper reiterated Iraq’s repeated denial that it has any weapons of mass destruction for the inspectors to discover.
That absolute denial, if maintained, could be taken by Washington as justification for waging war. The resolution calls on Iraq to give the UN “full, accurate and complete” details of weapons programmes by December 8.
An advance party of UN technicians is to arrive in Baghdad on Monday to prepare for inspections, which are not expected to begin for another week or two. The group will be accompanied by chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix and his counterpart from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Inspectors pulled out in 1998, on the eve of a US-British bombing campaign, saying Iraq was obstructing their work.
“Now that Iraq has accepted the UN resolution the immediate threat of war has disappeared for the moment but the danger is far from over,” said one Baghdad-based Western diplomat. “There is a complicated journey ahead.”
Ordinary Iraqis, weary of conflict, greeted news of Saddam’s acquiescence with relief but also lingering apprehension.
“I don’t believe it’s over. It might push the spectre of war back by one or two months but the Americans are still planning to strike,” said Haidar Hamzeh, 23, a student.
“When America focuses on a target it does not let go. This is a temporary truce, a tranquiliser,” he added.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies, military allies of the United States but nervous that an unpopular new war might unleash waves of unrest throughout the whole region, welcomed Iraq’s announcement.
“Thank God Iraq has accepted... We hope Iraq will cooperate with the United Nations’ envoys,” Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef said.
Kuwaiti officials called Iraq’s statement “the first positive step in the right direction, but not the end”.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed Iraq’s move as positive, adding that it “distances the spectre of war from the region”. Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa said it meant it was time to stop talking about a “war option”.
Bitter rivalries among Iraqi exiles hindered their efforts to form an alternative government which, Washington hopes, could replace Saddam if US forces carried out their threat to overthrow him.
Crucial opposition talks are scheduled in Brussels on November 22 but the Iraqi factions remain at odds over how broad the conference should be, how to allocate seats and what kind of conference documents should be adopted, opposition sources said.
The arguments reflect a split within the Bush administration between the State Department and the CIA on one hand, and the White House and the Pentagon on the other, over which opposition groups are the most reliable.