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White House dismisses Iraq statement on U.N. weapons inspections

WASHINGTON—As the Bush administration Monday tried to persuade skeptical nations that Iraq poses an urgent threat, a White House spokesman dismissed Iraqi claims that Saddam Hussein is ready to discuss the return of United Nations weapons inspectors.

"Iraq changes positions on whether it will let the inspectors in more often than Saddam Hussein changes bunkers," Ari Fleischer told reporters traveling with President Bush to a Labor Day picnic in Pittsburgh.

Trying to head off a possible U.S. attack, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said he will consider the return of U.N. inspectors when he meets Tuesday with Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Johannesburg, the site of an economic and environmental summit.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been more cautious in his rhetoric toward Iraq than other administration officials, left Monday for the South Africa summit, where he will meet with Annan and other world leaders.

Powell, aides said Monday, will press for the removal of Saddam as a threat to global security.

Fleischer insisted Monday that there is no disagreement within the administration over Iraq policy. But while Vice President Dick Cheney has urged swift action to oust Saddam, Powell said in an interview with the BBC that unrestricted weapons inspections in Iraq should be given a chance.

The goal is the same, Fleischer said.

"The American position, as the vice president said in his remarks, and Secretary Powell said, and as the president has said, is that arms inspectors in Iraq are a means to an end," Fleischer said.

"But the end is knowledge that Iraq has lived up to its promises that it made at the end of the Gulf War, that it has in fact disarmed, that it does not possess weapons of mass destruction."

He called reports of internal debate about Iraq "much ado about no difference."

It was not clear Monday whether Aziz's statement signaled a change in Iraqi policy. Iraq has said U.N. weapons experts would have to discuss what they were looking for before searches could resume; the United States insists that all searches must be "unfettered."

Iraq expelled the U.N. inspectors in 1998, and Iraqi officials claim they've complied with U.N. orders after the Gulf War to scrap their nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.

Although there are widespread doubts about that claim, Powell will face a difficult audience in South Africa. On Monday, former South African President Nelson Mandela said he was "appalled" by U.S. threats to attack Iraq and said the Bush administration was "introducing chaos in international affairs."

A top official of Oman, a leading U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, warned Monday that an attack on Iraq would increase hostility toward the United States in the Middle East. Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the minister responsible for foreign affairs, said U.S. officials were not listening to the Gulf states.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder urged U.S. leaders to hold off on military action. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with his Iraqi counterpart, Naji Sabri, and said a U.S. attack would undermine stability in the Middle East.

Saddam charged Monday that the United States wants to remove him because it wants to control oil in the Middle East.

"America thinks that if it controls the oil of the Middle East then it will control the world," he said, according to the official Iraqi News Agency.

The debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq will intensify in Washington when Congress returns on Tuesday. Several key senators, including Republican John Warner of Virginia and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, have said the administration should seek congressional approval to attack Iraq.

Warner, the ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, said he wants hearings to explore the need for an attack.

President Bush has said he will consult with Congress, but that he needs no congressional authorization to attack Iraq.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Diego Ibarguen contributed to this report.)


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.