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Pressure intensifies on Iraq to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors

WASHINGTON—International pressure intensified Sunday on Iraq to avoid war by readmitting U.N. arms inspectors, with Saudi Arabia warning that it would allow the United States to use bases on its territory for a U.N.-authorized attack.

"Everyone would be obliged to follow through," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal replied when asked in a CNN interview if Saudi Arabia would make available its facilities for a U.S. military operation approved by the United Nations.

Al Faisal said he remained opposed in principle to military action or a unilateral U.S. campaign, but his statement signaled a shift by Saudi Arabia away from its rigid opposition to any use of force against its northern neighbor.

In addition to serving as a warning to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that opposition to military action may be weakening, al Faisal's statement could ease tensions with the United States, exacerbated after the Sept.11 attack in which 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudis.

The Saudi shift was welcomed in Washington as helpful to President Bush's call Thursday for the United Nations to pass new resolutions compelling Saddam to fulfill unconditionally more than a decade of U.N. resolutions on arms inspections and other matters.

"We are not talking about military action. We are talking about pressure on Iraq, and the Saudis do indeed seem to be pushing," said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Saudi leaders had contended that an attack on Iraq would enflame the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and further destabilize the Middle East. In response to their refusal to permit the use of their territory for an Iraq operation, the United States, which has 5,000 troops in the oil-rich kingdom, had been upgrading bases elsewhere in the region.

The Saudi shift came a day after the Arab League and Russia, one of Iraq's key diplomatic allies, urged Saddam Hussein to avert a second Persian Gulf war by re-admitting U.N. inspectors charged with destroying his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

The inspectors have been barred from Iraq since leaving in 1999 with their job only partially completed.

And the Bush administration charges that Iraq has been busy rebuilding its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

Baghdad on Saturday said U.N. inspections could not resume unless the United Nations rules out the use of force and begins lifting economic sanctions imposed after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected the conditions laid down by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

"The Iraqi regime can have no say in what is required of it," Rice said on ABC's "This Week."

Powell, appearing on several Sunday television talks shows, said that he believed that U.N. Security Council members would begin drafting a new resolution toward the end of this week on Iraq.

He said the United States wants a resolution declaring Iraq "in material breach" of past U.N. resolutions, setting out the steps it must take to fulfill them and authorizing U.N. members to take action should Baghdad fail to do so by a very short deadline.

Powell disclosed that Bush decided more than a month ago to seek U.N. support on Iraq amid strong opposition from U.S. allies and other governments to the United States acting alone.

But Bush, who has made Saddam's removal a top foreign policy priority, could face a diplomatic dilemma should Iraq heed calls to re-admit the U.N. weapons inspectors. By agreeing, Saddam could short-circuit the negotiations between the United States and other Security Council members before the new resolution has been drafted.

Many council members agree with Bush's demand that the United Nation reaffirm its authority by toughening its stance on Iraq. But they are still deeply opposed to a military solution, and an Iraqi assent to a return of inspectors could give them an excuse not to proceed with a new resolution.

With that possible scenario apparently in mind, Powell indicated that the Bush administration would not drop the option of toppling Saddam by force even if he allowed the inspectors to return.

"The fundamental issue that got us to regime change was not (just) disarmament," Powell said on NBC's "Meet The Press." "There are a number of other elements in these U.N. resolutions: oppression of minorities, returning of Kuwaiti prisoners and other prisoners."

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Iraq also has yet to account for Capt. Scott Speicher, a U.S. pilot shot down at the beginning of the 1991 conflict, he said.

"We will see what the U.N. effort is able to do," he said. "The president retains all of his options to act in a way that he believes is appropriate to defend U.S. interests."

Still, Powell and Rice repeatedly emphasized that Bush is committed to working with the United Nations for now.

She and Powell also emphasized that the U.N. inspections would have to be far more rigorous that they were in the past.

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

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