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Iraq says it relented on inspections to deprive Bush of pretext for attack

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi officials said Tuesday that they had offered to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return here in order to deprive President Bush of an excuse to attack.

"The pretext that has always been used by them to launch an aggression has been dropped," said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a top aide to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi leaders claim that Bush's demands that Baghdad prove it isn't developing weapons of mass destruction are a ruse. Washington's real aim, they say, is to overthrow Saddam's regime and gain control of Iraq's oil resources.

Aziz blasted the skeptical U.S. and British response to Iraq's offer as proof of Baghdad's suspicions.

"Their reaction was, this is not enough, this is only a tactic," he said. That "gives testimony to what we have said. It is only a pretext."

Iraq's offer to allow inspectors to return "without conditions" appeared timed to defuse gathering diplomatic pressure on Baghdad in the U.N. Security Council, after Bush's speech last week calling on the world body to enforce its own demands on Iraq. The president made it clear that the United States would act on its own if necessary.

Iraq's move to readmit inspectors fits in with a long history of diplomatic maneuvering by Saddam when he is under pressure. But it appears to have had the intended effect of placing the diplomatic onus back on the White House, at least temporarily.

Aziz said Iraq acted after direct pleas from fellow Arab countries, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League.

He predicted a continued confrontation with Washington.

"The issue does not end with the agreeing of Iraq to have the inspectors back," Aziz told a gathering of Iraq's international supporters. Attendees included ultranationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky and British member of parliament George Galloway.

That view was echoed by Iraqi citizens, who, in conversations with Westerners, almost always back their government.

Haider Abdul Aziz, a hotel owner in the city of Karbala, 75 miles southwest of Baghdad, pointed out that this was not the first time there had been a confrontation over U.N. weapons inspectors.

"The same game is being repeated. They (the Americans) will fabricate things to escalate the situation," said Aziz, 25.

Bush argues that Iraq has never lived up to promises—made after the cease-fire in the 1991 Persian Gulf War—to divest itself of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.

Many Iraqis see the confrontation as just the latest in a long line since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But Aziz's wife, Amira Abdul Abas, 21, said this one is more serious.

"I guess that this time is different from other times ... they are very serious," she said, citing what she said was Bush's apparent desire to force a confrontation.

Iraq's decision "will not remove or stop the violence and aggressiveness of Mr. Bush," said Abdul Sahib Naser Nasrulla, the custodian of Karbala's shrine to al Husayn, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed. The decision was made "to put the ball in their court," he said.

Nasrulla said the inspectors should be allowed back in, but with a time limit on their activities. He said there also should be guarantees that they will not be used as a cover for espionage, which he believes has happened in the past.

"That is what we want. We want them to (do) their own job honestly, and to respect the national integrity of Iraq," he said.

Many saw Iraq's offer as improving, if only modestly, the chances to avoid another war.

"We hope that diplomacy will prevail," said Majid Hamid, 25. "But if there is a war, we are ready for that."


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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tariq Aziz