UNITED NATIONS -- Iraq and the United Nations agreed Wednesday that their first high-level talks in a year got off to a "positive and constructive" start, but there was no indication Baghdad will allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country.
No major breakthrough had been expected, and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri announced that the dialogue would continue sometime in mid-April. "I am always optimistic," Sabri said as he left U.N. headquarters.
The long-awaited meeting, initiated by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, began with an unusual one-on-one session between Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that lasted about 20 minutes, a signal of the high stakes.
The United States has demanded the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, accused Iraq of being part of an "axis of evil" supporting terrorism, and hinted it might expand its war on terrorism to the oil-rich Mideast nation. On Wednesday, U.S. officials charged that Iraq is illegally trying to build up its military by converting about 1,000 trucks for military use in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Concerns over conflict
Many Arab leaders have warned President Bush that attacking Iraq would damage Mideast support for the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign -- but U.S. officials haven't stopped hinting.
The secretary-general made clear Thursday that he, too, opposes any widening of the conflict in the Middle East.
"I would want to see a situation where we are able to resolve our differences diplomatically and that Iraq comes into compliance," Annan said.
Some diplomats believe the U.S. pressure brought the Iraqi minister to New York to try to resolve the festering dispute with the council. Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Al-Douri vehemently denied it, saying the talks have "nothing to do with the ... American threat."
At issue are U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that can't be lifted until U.N. weapons inspectors certify that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles have been eliminated. The inspectors left ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes in December 1998. Iraq has barred them from returning, insisting it has complied with Security Council sanctions resolutions and demanding an end to the embargoes.
Annan told reporters before the meeting he hoped the Iraqis were coming "in a constructive spirit," noting that governments friendly with Baghdad "sense some flexibility on the part of Iraq."
At the end of the first round of talks Thursday morning, which lasted about two hours, both sides used identical language.
"We started our discussions with the secretary-general within a positive and constructive atmosphere and we shall continue in the afternoon," Sabri said as he left U.N. headquarters.
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, echoed that assessment, saying: "The talks got off to a positive and constructive start. They were focused -- they discussed the key issues."
After a second meeting in the afternoon that lasted a little less than an hour, Sabri used the same language.
"We had a constructive and positive exchange of views on various issues related to the Iraq-U.N. relationship," he said, explaining that each side had raised its concerns.
"Hopefully, we shall continue in the same spirit and effort," said Sabri, who was scheduled to leave for Baghdad late Thursday.
Thursday marked the first high-level talks between Iraq and the world body since late February 2001. No real progress was reported in those talks over the same sanctions and weapons inspections issues.
For the first time Thursday, both delegations included weapons experts -- chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Iraq's main liaison with U.N. inspectors, Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin. Annan said that he hoped their presence would enable both sides to get into the subject of returning weapons inspectors.
Eckhard said Blix explained the organization of the new U.N. weapons inspection agency he heads.