The Associated PressUNITED NATIONS -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday he will write to Iraq seeking clarification on whether it agrees to the U.N. plan for the return of weapons inspectors, a move supported by the Security Council.
Annan said he would look "in a different light" at Iraq's invitation to the chief U.N. weapons inspector to visit Baghdad if Iraq agrees to the council's road map for the return of inspectors, who have been barred from the country for nearly four years. Annan spoke to reporters after a private lunch with the 15 council members.
"All members of the council agree that we should do everything to get the inspectors back, and if Iraq is open to that sort of idea, there are practical bases for moving forward, and this is something we are going to explore in the next letter," Annan said.
The secretary-general reiterated his welcome of last week's letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, which raised for the first time the possible return of inspectors. But Annan stressed that Iraq's desired outcome from the meeting differed from the Security Council's plan for resuming inspections, which has primacy.
Sabri said in his letter that Iraq wants chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and its own experts to determine the outstanding issues regarding Iraq's banned weapons programs and figure out how to resolve them before inspectors return.
But a 1999 Security Council resolution requires U.N. weapons inspectors to visit Iraq and then determine what questions Iraq still must answer about its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs. The council must approve the list of outstanding issues.
In a follow-up note to council members Monday, Iraq said it did not want to discuss any new issues that inspectors might raise after returning to Iraq. However, it wanted to review with Blix the disarmament issues that were outstanding when inspectors left Dec. 15, 1998, ahead of U.S. and British air strikes punishing Iraq for not cooperating.
The Iraqis also were concerned about President Bush's call for Saddam Hussein's ouster and the growing indications from Congress that war with Iraq is likely. The United States accuses Iraq of trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs and of supporting terrorism, and has threatened unspecified consequences if inspectors are not allowed to return.
"We cannot think of starting a new stage without solving the pending issues of the previous stage -- because that will surely mean that we are going back once again into the mine field, and the return of the inspectors will only be for a few weeks, and differences and crisis will return," the Iraqis said.
The result will be "the departure of the inspectors and then the United States will call for an aggression on Iraq as was the case during 1991-1998," the Iraqi Mission said.
Annan on Monday reiterated his long-standing position that "it would be very unwise to attack Iraq, given the current circumstances -- what's happening in the Middle East."
The council's deep divisions over Iraq policy were evident Monday.
"There were shades of emphasis," Annan said, "some indicating that the council itself has been very keen to get the inspectors in and we should go the last mile to get the others in, and there are those who believe this is gamesmanship and nothing may come out of it, and one should be aware of that."
Deputy Ambassador Gennadi Gatilov of Russia, Iraq's closest council ally, noted that there was "not too much agreement."
Speaking as this month's Security Council president, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said, "While there may have been some differences with respect to tactics, I think that all council members felt that the road map to renewed inspections and, of course, disarmament of Iraq is laid out."
Annan added, "Whether this is a real break and a real change in attitude is something that we will have to test."
The debate over Iraq's invitation was complicated further by Blix's comments last week that he would not go to Iraq until Baghdad approves the return of U.N. weapons inspectors. Blix made the remarks in a Thursday interview with the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat -- before he received word of the invitation.
Under Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed.