Facing an increasing possibility of U.S. military action, Iraq gave the first solid indication in nearly four years that it will allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return and invited the chief inspector to Baghdad for talks.
The return of inspectors is a key demand of the U.N. Security Council and especially of the United States, which has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs and of supporting terrorism.
In a surprise move, Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri sent a letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday referring twice to the return of inspectors — and hinting that talks with chief inspector Hans Blix could lead to an agreement for a resumption of inspections.
The United States noted that the letter offered no compliance with Security Council resolutions demanding unfettered access for inspectors at any time and in any place. "We welcome any movement but note that the Security Council is not in the position of negotiating their resolutions," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission.
There was no immediate comment on the Iraqi proposal from Annan or Blix.
The letter arrived four weeks after Annan failed for the third time since March to persuade Sabri to allow the inspectors back. Unlike many Iraqi letters to the United Nations, this one was moderate in tone and did not contain political rhetoric.
It was sent on a day the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrapped up hearings on whether the United States should force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. It was generally agreed at the Senate hearings that Saddam's development of weapons of mass destruction pose a serious risk — though there have been differences about whether the threat could be ended only by military action.
While President Bush called for Saddam to be removed, citing the threat posed by Iraq's development of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, administration officials insist no decision has been made on whether to invade Iraq.
Nonetheless, there has been an increasing spate of media reports that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is examining military options.
The letter also arrived on the day the United States assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after the invasion can be lifted only when inspectors certify that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed, along with the long-range missiles that could deliver them.
Russia on Friday hailed Iraq's decision to invite the chief U.N. inspector for talks and also claimed credit for the move, saying that it has offered a peaceful way out of the crisis.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Iraq's decision to invite Blix came right after a Russian delegation visited Baghdad for talks on "deblocking the Iraqi problem."
The United States has warned Saddam he faces unspecified consequences if he does not allow the return of the inspectors, who left ahead of 1998 allied airstrikes meant to punish Iraq for blocking inspections.
In the letter, Sabri invited Blix and experts from the U.N. weapons inspection agency to visit Baghdad for technical talks "at the earliest agreed upon time."
Sabri said his government wants the talks between Blix and Iraqi experts to review the remaining questions about Iraq's weapons programs and decide measures to resolve them "when the inspection regime returns to Iraq."
The Iraqi minister said the meeting would follow-up on Annan's suggestion in August 1998 "to conduct a comprehensive review ... and assess the degree of Iraq's implementation of its obligations."
"We believe that this review will be an important step towards the appropriate legal and technical assessment and treatment of the issues of disarmament and to establish a solid base for the next stage of monitoring and inspection activities...," he said.
In a report in January 1999, a month after inspectors were withdrawn, the U.N. inspection agency issued a report on the status of disarmament.
That report mentioned priority issues that Iraq had not satisfactorily resolved such as its development of VX, a deadly chemical weapons nerve agent, its missile production capabilities and many remaining question marks about its biological weapons program. Iraq insists that all its weapons programs have been dismantled and it is fully disarmed.
The letter, which Sabri asked to be conveyed to the Security Council, said Iraq hopes the review of the outstanding issues will lead to agreement on "practical arrangements to resume cooperation."
Sabri also expressed hope it will lead to a solution and implementation of requirements that Iraq must fulfill under Security Council resolutions.
At their first meeting in March, Sabri gave Annan a list of questions Iraq wanted answered — some technical and some political. Blix addressed the technical questions at the second meeting in May.
Annan sent the political questions to the Security Council. These questions focused on lifting sanctions, U.S. threats against Iraq, the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq enforced by U.S. and British aircraft and the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.
The Security Council chose not to respond to these questions. But Thursday's letter made no mention of any political issues, referring only to the remaining disarmament issues.