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U.S. Rejects Iraqi Overtures

The United States Friday poured cold water on Iraq's offer of talks on U.N. arms inspections and renewed its call for the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was demanding completely "unfettered" inspections of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.

He said Washington would maintain its policy of seeking to oust the Iraqi leader, calling that a separate issue from the weapons inspections.

"Our policy remains the same. It has been the same since 1995 and that is regime change. ... Everyone understands the nature of Saddam Hussein and his regime," McCormack said.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Thursday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri invited chief arms inspector Hans Blix to Baghdad for talks but said the discussions had to include a "comprehensive assessment" of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.

Blix has said he could not discuss what remained to be done until his inspectors, out of the country since 1998, were on the ground.

U.N. arms experts left Iraq in December 1998 on the eve of a U.S.-British bombing campaign to punish Baghdad for not cooperating with the arms experts. Accounting for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is key to suspending U.N. sanctions, imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

The Iraqi letter came in a week that President Bush repeated his commitment to a "regime change" in Iraq and his determination to look at "all options ... all tools" to oust the Iraqi leader.

Referring to Iraq's invitation for talks, McCormack, on his way to join Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, said: "It should be a very short discussion. What he (Saddam) should say is, 'Yes, I accept any time, anywhere, any place unfettered inspections.'"

"There's no discussion necessary. Saddam Hussein needs to live up to the terms of the agreement he signed in 1991," McCormack said, referring to agreements calling for the end of Iraqi weapon programs. "He has failed to live up to that. ... Inspections were a means to an end, they were never an end in and of themselves."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "I think we've all seen this story line before ... of feints and false promises."

Like the United States, Britain was skeptical of the Iraqi offer for talks. In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said: "Saddam has a long history of playing games. As his track record shows, he does not deliver."

Russia, a determined opponent of military action against Iraq, welcomed Baghdad's invitation as an important step toward resolving the impasse peacefully.

But White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, "It's time for action, not discussions."

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