WASHINGTON—With a U.S. gun to his head, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Wednesday accepted a U.N. demand to open his country to weapons inspections without conditions.
Iraq's U.N. ambassador delivered a rambling, angry nine-page letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreeing to abide by the tough inspection terms set last Friday when the U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 to order Iraq to submit to new inspections. The letter was signed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, but he clearly was speaking for Saddam, who as dictator has total power.
The letter denounced the U.N. action as unjust, denied that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction and attacked the United States and Great Britain, the co-sponsors of the resolution, as liars. Nevertheless it concluded that "the important thing is trying to spare our people any harm" and said Iraq was "prepared to receive the inspectors within the assigned timetable." The Security Council had given Iraq until this Friday to respond.
An extensive U.S. military buildup continues around Iraq. President Bush has made it clear that if Iraq does not disarm, he will unleash a U.S.-led military coalition to invade the country.
Iraq's decision to accept Security Council Resolution 1441 clears the way for Monday's arrival of chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Blix is to focus on chemical and biological weapons; ElBaradei is charged with inspecting for nuclear weapons.
Iraq's letter got a cold reception at the White House. President Bush made no reference to it in comments he made at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Annan. Instead, he congratulated the United Nations for last week's unanimous Security Council action.
Earlier Wednesday, after a meeting with his Cabinet officers, Bush repeated his near-daily call to Saddam to disarm or face the consequences.
"We hope that he disarms. We hope that he will listen to the world. The world has spoken. . . . If he chooses not to disarm, we will disarm him," Bush said. "There's no negotiations with Mr. Saddam Hussein. Those days are long gone. And so are the days of deceit and denial. And now it's up to him."
Annan delivered a cautious judgment on Iraq's letter when speaking outside the White House after huddling with Bush.
"Yes, Iraq has accepted," Annan said. However, he stressed, "the issue is not acceptance but performance on the ground. Let the inspectors go in. I urge the Iraqis to cooperate with them. . . ."
Independent analysts and government officials said Iraq's acceptance of the resolution had been expected and that the real test of its willingness to comply lay ahead.
The next test comes Dec. 8, a deadline the U.N. resolution set for Iraq to submit a "currently accurate, full and complete" report of its military and civilian chemical, biological and nuclear programs and on other weapons systems, such as ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The resolution warns of "serious consequences" for failure to comply and says Iraq has been and remains in "material breach" of previous U.N. resolutions—diplomatic parlance often used to authorize military force.
If the inspection teams report Iraqi noncompliance, the resolution provides that the Security Council will "convene immediately" to consider what to do. It notes that the council has warned Iraq "that it will face serious consequences" as a result of continued violations.
"If the Iraqis provide a declaration of 50 (weapons sites) and the U.S. has a list of 51, that's concrete," said Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's guaranteed that Iraq is not going to err on the side of inclusion. . . . For Saddam Hussein this is still a chess match."
The inspectors' initial visit is to focus on setting up communications, transport, offices and laboratories. The resolution calls for full inspections to be under way within 45 days of the resolution's passage. Blix and ElBaradei are to submit an initial report on their findings to the Security Council after 60 days of work, the latest possible date being Feb. 21.
The IAEA and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission will have complete access to underground areas, weapons, equipment and facilities in Iraq, including Saddam's palaces. Iraq must provide the names of scientists involved in its weapons programs. The inspectors have the right to interview the Iraqi scientists and their families without the presence of Iraqi government observers, and even outside Iraq.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ