U.N. says Iraq ready to resume talks

Wednesday, February 6, 2002

UNITED NATIONS -- Iraq is prepared to resume dialogue with the United Nations, but the world organization did not indicate whether Saddam Hussein's government is willing to discuss the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday there was nothing to talk about unless Iraq agrees to the inspectors' return.

Amr Mousa, the secretary-general of the Arab League who recently visited the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Iraq would restart talks without any special conditions, the United Nations said in a statement Monday.

Annan said he was prepared to receive a delegation from Iraq.

Iraq has been under U.N. sanctions since it invaded Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions cannot be lifted unless U.N inspectors verify that Baghdad has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction.

But U.N. inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes, and Iraq has barred them from returning. Iraqi officials have called them "spies."

Powell said that Iraq's overture should be limited to letting the inspectors back in.

"It should be a very short discussion," Powell said. "The inspectors have to go back."

Annan held talks with Iraqi officials in February 2001 to try to bridge the impasse, but U.N. officials said no real progress was achieved.

The United Nations has said it wants the next round of talks to prepare the way for resuming inspections and ultimately lifting sanctions.

The Security Council has promised to consider suspending sanctions for renewable 120-day periods if inspectors report that Iraq has cooperated.

Iraq insists it has complied with all the demands of U.N. inspectors and wants the sanctions lifted completely. Only then, it says, will it consider allowing inspectors back in.

A U.S. official at the United Nations said "any dialogue with Iraq must start with compliance with Security Council resolutions, specifically the readmission of inspectors. Without that, it is seen as one more attempt to escape international obligations."

Russia, which is Iraq's closest ally on the council and has pressed for lifting sanctions, welcomed the announcement.

"Russia from the very start has backed the idea of direct dialogue between Baghdad and the U.N.," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko.

"A prompt start of the negotiation process can open up real prospects for resolving the situation with Iraq, and give a new, positive impetus to the search for mutually acceptable solutions to the Iraq problem," Yakovenko said.

Iraq has been singled out as one of the most likely targets in a second phase of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. President Bush referred to Iraq in his State of the Union address as part of an "axis of evil" that includes Iran and North Korea.

Bush also recently warned Iraq of unspecified consequences if it didn't resume cooperating with U.N. inspectors.

Iraq's vice president told a Russian newspaper Monday that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Taha Yassin Ramadan also criticized America's foreign policy as being overbearing and "dirty," but did not elaborate.

In recent weeks, Iraq has made several diplomatic overtures.

It asked the European Union for a high-level dialogue on U.N. sanctions and other policy issues, but EU diplomats indicated the 15-nation group was unlikely to accept because sanctions were the prerogative of the United Nations.

Iraq also allowed international nuclear experts from the U.N. atomic energy agency to begin "limited" inspections of a nuclear research center. The inspectors arrived in Baghdad on Friday.

Iraq also invited the U.N. human rights expert on the country to visit -- the first such invitation in 10 years, the world body said Monday.

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