VIENNA, Austria—The United Nations and Iraq agreed Tuesday in Vienna on terms to renew weapons inspections in Iraq without conditions except at eight "presidential sites," but the Bush administration said inspections should not begin until the U.N. sets tougher terms.
The White House made its hard line on Iraq even harsher Tuesday, as spokesman Ari Fleischer invited the Iraqi people to assassinate their president, Saddam Hussein, as an alternative to war.
Asked about new estimates that war with Iraq could cost up to $9 billion a month, Fleischer said "the cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that. . . . Regime change is welcome in whatever form it takes."
Despite such tough talk, the Bush administration appears to face an uphill struggle in winning support for its stand from the U.N. Security Council. President Bush wants the council to endorse a single resolution demanding Iraqi disarmament and authorizing military force if Saddam fails to comply.
A meeting Tuesday of the five permanent Security Council members in New York to discuss terms for a new Iraq resolution ended inconclusively. Diplomats said specific wording wasn't even discussed, but one noted that the meeting, while not heated, was punctuated by extensive discussion of concerns about concepts in the draft that Washington favors, including "threat language" directed at Saddam.
Three of the five permanent members—France, Russia and China—have made it clear that they are unwilling at this time to go along with the Bush administration's proposed language authorizing war. Tuesday's Vienna agreement promising new inspections appeared likely to strengthen their reservations.
In Vienna, both sides declared victory.
"There is a readiness (by Iraq) to accept inspections that did not exist before," said Hans Blix, the chief U.N. arms inspector.
"The talks were businesslike, purposeful, focused," said the leader of the Iraqi delegation, Gen. Amir al Sadi. "Yes, we are happy to agree to this agreement. And we expect the advance party (of inspectors) to arrive in Baghdad in about two weeks."
Both sides said U.N. inspectors would be granted unrestricted access to all sites in Iraq to seek evidence that weapons of mass destruction are being developed, except for eight "presidential sites," which were left out of their negotiations because they are granted special status under a 1998 U.N. agreement with Saddam. Blix said it was up to the Security Council to set any new terms regarding those sites, which together encompass about 12 miles of Iraqi territory.
"Quite honestly, I don't understand why they are so critical," al Sadi said.
At the United Nations, one Security Council member, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said the Vienna agreement demonstrated that "regardless or besides the American resolution, we are moving along with the implementation of our resolutions. And that's good news."
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington opposed the return of inspectors to Iraq until the U.N. Security Council passed a tough new resolution.
The inspection teams "cannot simply go back in under the former terms of reference," Powell said. He did not answer directly when asked whether the United States would take action to thwart the inspectors' return.
In the talks with Blix, "The Iraqis made some concessions. But in other areas, they made no concessions," Powell said, emphasizing that Iraq needs to hear a strong, clear message from the Security Council.
Bush faces a much easier audience on Capitol Hill, where Congress appears certain to give him the authority he seeks next week. The top four Democratic and Republican leaders from Congress are to meet the president over breakfast Wednesday to discuss Iraq.
The Senate is expected to begin debate this week on a resolution that would grant Bush broad authority to wage war against Iraq, and the House of Representatives is expected to follow next week.
Solid majorities in the Senate and the House support the president's position. The only real debate is whether he will accept modest compromise language in the resolutions that would encourage him to exhaust diplomatic efforts through the United Nations before turning to war. The compromise language also would focus on Iraq's quest for weapons of mass destruction as the cause that justifies force, eliminating Bush's list of Saddam's sins, which include such offenses as failure to return Kuwaiti property seized in 1991.
The proposed compromise language would not tie Bush's hands but would be a gesture toward diplomacy and allies, and thus would give him stronger majorities in Congress for a resolution that, like his own draft, would give him the power he seeks. But if Bush refuses to compromise, most lawmakers are ready to give him what he wants rather than oppose a president who insists that national security is at stake.
Bush rejected any compromise terms Tuesday in either the U.N. or congressional resolutions in remarks at the White House.
"I don't want to get a resolution which ties my hands," Bush said when he was asked about a bipartisan compromise offered by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. Biden chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Lugar did when Republicans ran the Senate.
In order for the Biden-Lugar language to get at least a full hearing, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., maneuvered Tuesday to ensure that their version will set initial terms of debate. It is expected to win endorsement Wednesday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Bush's language will have to be offered as a substitute amendment to it on the Senate floor to prevail.
Bush rejected a French proposal that would require two U.N. Security Council votes on Iraq, one demanding disarmament and Iraq's full compliance with inspectors, and a second authorizing force later, only if Iraq fails to fall into line.
"The United Nations must show its backbone," Bush said. "What I won't accept is something that allows Saddam Hussein to continue to lie, deceive the world. He's been doing that for 11 years. I'm just not going to accept something that is weak. It is not worth it."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Ron Hutcheson, Jodi Enda and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ