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Iraq's U.N. ambassador says weapons inspectors may get access to `presidential sites'

WASHINGTON—Facing threats of a U.S.-led invasion, Iraq on Sunday hinted that it might allow United Nations weapons inspectors greater freedom to search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Mohammed Aldouri, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, suggested that Baghdad is willing to give the inspectors unfettered access to so-called "presidential sites"—sprawling compounds belonging to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for which Iraq has previously demanded special status.

"I don't think that we will have a problem on that question," Aldouri said. "Certainly, we can accommodate ourselves with the U.N. to have free access to presidential sites."

Contradicting recent statements by other Iraqi officials, Aldouri also said that Baghdad may accept a proposed new U.N. Security Council resolution that's expected to set stiff terms for eliminating its suspected chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs.

"We are not rejecting any resolutions of the Security Council," the Iraqi diplomat said on the ABC News program "This Week." "We will see these resolutions. First of all, to have this resolution in our hand, and after that, we can conclude."

Iraq's possible change of heart about U.N. weapons inspections comes after chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix agreed late last week to the U.S. position that his teams of experts won't return to Iraq until a new U.N. resolution is adopted.

However, Aldouri's remarks are unlikely to satisfy the Bush administration, which accuses Iraq of repeatedly breaking its promises.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called it "pretty typical Iraqi behavior. ... Whenever they're faced with a determined front, they start backpedaling."

In particular, the White House wants to void a 1998 deal between Baghdad and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that set limits on inspectors visits to eight of Saddam's palaces.

Aldouri's remarks come as diplomatic pressure mounts on Baghdad, and as President Bush prepares to deliver an address at 8 p.m. EDT Monday laying out his case about the danger Iraq poses to the United States.

Bush is expected to say that war may be unavoidable if Iraq does not live up to previous commitments to disarm. He also is expected to discuss U.S. plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.

The coming week also could prove pivotal on other fronts.

The United States on Sunday appeared to be moving closer to gaining allies' agreement to the new U.N. Security Council resolution.

France and Russia have balked at a U.S. proposal that would authorize military strikes on Iraq if Baghdad fails to meet the U.N.'s terms. France has proposed a two-step process in which a second resolution authorizing force would have to be approved.

Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke by telephone Sunday with French Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin in an effort to find a compromise.

"We're really trying to work some bridging language between where we were and where the French were," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity.

Congress, meanwhile, is moving toward passing a resolution giving Bush broad authority to use force against Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., predicted Sunday that lawmakers will support the president overwhelmingly.

"It will pass and I suspect that there will be a broad bipartisan coalition in support of it," Daschle, who has withheld his support for the measure, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Meanwhile, Secretary of the Air Force James Roche said that leaders of the U.S. armed forces have candidly voiced their concerns to Bush about the problems that could arise in a war to unseat Saddam. These include worries about relying on aging equipment and overtaxing American forces that already are committed to major operations underway in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Roche said.

Once the president makes a decision to go to war, "It's our duty to salute and say aye-aye," Roche, a former naval officer, told a conference in Leesburg, Va., sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But senior military leaders also have a duty to fully explain to the president the risks involved in such as war because "it's one thing to talk about war in the abstract and another when it has to be done. War is not fun. It's not fun for anyone," he said.

Roche said the United States is getting more cooperation than is known publicly from Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, both for Bush's war on terrorism and a possible campaign against Iraq.


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