Iraqis agree to return of weapons inspectors

W By Karen DeYoung

wASHINGTON – Iraq Wednesday said it was ready to receive United Nations weapons inspectors in accordance with the Security Council resolution approved last week, bowing to intense international pressure two days before a U.N. deadline.

An eight-page letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Saberi Ahmed was filled with invective against the United States, Britain and the 13 other council governments that voted unanimously for the measure. Ahmed asserted that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction for inspectors to find but said, “We are prepared to receive the inspectors within the assigned timetable … We are eager to see them perform their duties … as soon as possible.”

“We take it they have accepted,” Annan told reporters after a White House meeting with President Bush. The first inspectors, Annan said, would be arrive in Iraq next Monday to begin setting up their headquarters and establishing a work plan.

Iraq’s acquiescence to the resolution, and apparent agreement to the tough new inspection program it establishes, crosses the first, and perhaps the easiest of a number of hurdles set out by the Security Council. The Bush administration has said that failure at any juncture would provide justification for war, either under U.N. auspices or, if the Security Council does not agree, by U.S. forces acting alone or with like-minded allies.

Baghdad now has until Dec. 8 to provide inspectors and the council with “a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration” of all its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Under the strict timetable, inspections must officially start operations no more than 15 days after that; chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix then has an additional 60 days – until nearly the end of February – before he must make his initial report to the council on Iraqi cooperation.

Bush made no comment on the Iraqi response in a brief Oval Office statement to reporters before he began his 40-minute meeting with Annan, and allowed no questions. But in earlier remarks following a morning Cabinet meeting, he said the United States would have “zero tolerance” for Iraqi deception. “About as plain as I can make it,” he said. “We will not tolerate any deception, denial or deceit, period.”

The resolution calls for Blix to immediately report any Iraqi “interference with inspection activities,” and for the council then to reconvene to decide what action to take. The administration has said that it will participate in those deliberations, while reserving the right to make its own decisions.

In an indication of how fragile international concensus remains after two months of deliberations during which some council members sought to fashion a resolution that would restrain U.S. eagerness to attack, Annan said Wednesday that he hoped all parties will “be careful” in deciding how to respond to possible Iraqi provocations. “Anything seen as a flimsy, hasty excuse to go to war will create difficulties in the council,” he said.

In its letter to Annan, Iraq repeated that it has no weapons of mass destruction, and said that both Bush and “his lackey, (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair … know, as well as we do … that such fabrications are baseless.” Those who “pressured” the council to adopt the resolution, it said, “have other objectives.”

The text of the letter was read Wednesday night on Iraqi television, voiced over a video tape of President Saddam Hussein meeting his top aides for what described as a discussion of the resolution. U.N. sources said they believed the harsh wording was directed primarily at the Iraqi public, which only Tuesday heard the Iraqi parliament urge Saddam to reject the resolution. Although Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador, Mohammed al-Douri, described the letter as “unconditional” agreement to the council’s terms, it was at best grudging.

Describing the resolution’s “bad contents,” the letter said that “if is to be implemented according to the premeditated evil of the parties of ill-intent, the important thing in this is trying to spare our people from harm.” Other governments had signed on to the resolution, the letter said, under U.S. “pressure and threat that it would leave the United Nations if (others) did not agree to what America wanted, which is to say the least, extremely evil and shameful to every honest member of the United Nations.” Iraq, it said, would have preferred that the United States “carry out its aggressions against us unilaterally” rather than “obtaining an international cover.”

In an apparent reference to terrorist attacks against Americans, the letter said that U.S. “infliction of injustice and destruction” on those who oppose it, principally “Muslim and Arab believers” is why the United States is now “reaping the hatred of the peoples of the world due to its policies and aggressive objectives.”

Although the Iraqi letter concluded with the intention to send a further communication “at a later date” stating Iraq’s belief that parts of the resolution are “contrary to international law,” U.N. officials said it was not clear whether Baghdad intended to argue with terms that Bush said Wednesday were non-negotiable.

“There’s no negotiations with Mr. Saddam Hussein,” Bush said in the White House Cabinet room. “Those days are long gone. And so are the days of deceit and denial. And now it’s up to him. And I want to remind you all that inspectors are there to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein is willing to disarm. It’s his choice to make. And should he choose not to disarm, we will disarm him.”

But the resolution itself, and U.S. interpretations of it, have already caused some confusion. It warns that any Iraqi failure to comply with the resolution will be a “material breach,” making Iraq liable for “serious consequences.” But it does not define those terms. Annan, who had asked to meet with Bush during a previously planned trip here to receive an award and deliver a speech on the Middle East, repeatedly returned to the need for council “credibility” and “serious, meaninful (inspections), not looking for excuses” during a breakfast meeting with reporters before his session with Bush. On several occasions, he disagreed with public statements about the resolution made by administration officials over the past week.

Last Friday, for example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited “a number of opportunities in the coming weeks to discover (Iraqi) intentions. Needless to say,” he added, “Iraq ought not to take or threaten hostile action against inspectors or coalition aircraft upholding U.N. inspections.” U.S. and British aircraft have for years patrolled northern and southern zones from which they prohibit Iraqi aircraft, often exchanging fire with Iraqi installations on the ground.

At a White House briefing Wednesday, spokesman Scott McClellan said that “part of the resolution calls for the regime in Iraq to stop firing” on such patrols, But while the resolution does say that Iraq “shall not take or threaten hostile acts” against any U.N. or member state personnel upholding the new resolution, it does not mention the no-fly patrols, which are not authorized or even mentioned in any previous resolution. “This is tricky,” Annan said. “The U.S. maintains the no fly patrols are in accordance with a resolution. A lot of others” on the council, including Russia, “don’t agree.”

The resolution does say, and the administration has emphasized, that any Iraqi omissions from the declaration due by Dec. 8 will be considered a “material breach.” But Annan said Wednesday he did not think the council would automatically accept such an omission as grounds for war. “The test will come when the inspectors are on the ground,” he said. “The “inspectors have a sense of what constitutes a major breach” and will make a “judgement of what is intentional and serious.”