Hussein's wedge between US, world

Baghad's open door to inspections is welcomed by those nations seeking to avoid using force in Iraq.

Iraq may not have deterred Washington from its campaign to depose Saddam Hussein, but its unconditional acceptance of UN weapons inspectors has driven a wedge – at least temporarily – between the United States and most other nations.

Anxious to avert war, leaders from Beijing to Berlin welcomed Baghdad's offer Tuesday as a good first step, while voicing varying degrees of skepticism about the trustworthiness of the Iraqi offer. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, on the other hand, dismissed it as "a tactic that will fail."

The move will complicate US efforts to persuade the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force if Hussein doesn't comply with past and any forthcoming UN resolutions.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Russian reporters in New York that "no new resolutions are needed" to dispatch inspectors. "We managed to avert the threat of a war scenario and go back to political means of solving the Iraqi problem."

That is not how US officials see the situation. "The US has always made it clear it is demanding full compliance with a whole range of UN Security Council demands that were part of the cease-fire agreement in 1991," says John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"The return of the inspectors is by no means the only requirement, and in US eyes does not remotely comprise compliance," he adds.

Indeed, it could spark new conflicts, if Iraq objects to anything the inspectors demand to do, such as visit presidential palaces which Saddam Hussein has always insisted are off-limits.

Hans Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), will be under pressure from Washington to launch quick challenges to the Iraqi government, and to be highly intrusive and aggressive.

Mr. Blix, however, "may not wish to see himself as a trigger for a war," says Professor Chipman. "He sees his orders as coming from the UN Security Council, not from one member of it, and he might not wish to go in right at the most pointed edge."

If the choice of sites to be inspected is a sensitive decision, the time taken on the inspections will offer plenty of opportunity for further controversy. Blix told a German newspaper Sunday that with 700 sites to visit, it would take at least a year to complete an inspection of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capacity, even if the Iraqis were fully cooperative.

"Anything can happen in a year, and judging by past form, it would be surprising if Saddam Hussein did not try to go back at least a little on what he has promised," says Georges le Guelte, head of research at the International and Strategic Relations Institute in Paris.

"Nothing in their record suggests that this is anything but a ruse to delay [US] military preparations and make them more difficult," Chipman says of the Iraqi offer. "And in case the inspections don't work, or the Americans ignore them, they will want to retain WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capacity in case there is a war."

Britain voiced the deepest doubts about Iraqi intentions. "This is a very, very serious step forward," British Home Secretary David Blunkett told the BBC, "but we are dealing with ... someone who has every intention of making a monkey out of the rest of the world."

Other permanent members of the Security Council, who could veto a US-backed resolution, were less wary. "The Iraqi decision is what the international community, including China has always hoped to see," Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that the Iraqi move offered "a real opportunity to resolve through political means" the showdown between Washington and Baghdad. "Russia will act decisively to ensure that this opportunity is not lost," the statement added.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, in New York for the UN General Assembly, said the world should "hold Saddam Hussein to his word" by sending weapons instructors to Iraq forthwith. "If it all works," he added, "it will show how well the international community can get results if it is united."

Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries breathed a sigh of relief at the Iraqi backpeddling after nearly four years of refusing to allow the inspectors in. Iraq has made "a wise and sensible decision which we hope will stop the drums of war," Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramazanzadeh said Tuesday.

"We absolutely welcome this decision by Iraq and I hope and pray that they continue in the same spirit because it will help avert a disaster for the region" said a senior official in Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate that would likely serve as headquarters for any US invasion of Iraq.

"Nevertheless we have suspicions about Iraq's positions", the official added. "They cannot be trusted."

In Turkey, fearful that a war in neighboring Iraq could mean prolonged chaos along its border, a foreign ministry spokesman called Baghdad's move "a major step towards meeting the expectations of the international community."

In Europe, the German government, which opposes military action in Iraq, "welcomes the [Iraqi] letter as a first step in the right direction," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Tuesday.

The chorus of international welcome for the Iraqi move, however cautious, "will be hard for America to ignore," says Georges le Guelte. "Everyone is saying that if this is a trick, let the inspectors go in and prove it," he says.

The Iraqis themselves appear resigned to continued US hostility. "The issue does not end with Iraq's acceptance of the return of the inspectors" Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a meeting of foreign supporters in Baghdad. "The aim of the American policies is the oil in the Gulf."

• Nicholas Birch in Istanbul, Turkey, and Nicholas Blanford in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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