Iraq invites inspectors to return

BAGHDAD: Facing the growing prospect of a US-led invasion, Iraq invited the two chief UN weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad for a fresh round of talks on Iraqi disarmament amid diminishing hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. 

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the UN nuclear agency, said yesterday that Iraq needed to “move forward” on several unresolved issues before considering the invitation. 

ElBaradei said the right of inspectors to interview scientists in private and the use of a high-altitude surveillance plane were important questions that needed to be dealt with. 

“We need to make sure before we go that they are ready to move forward on these issues,” he said in Vienna, Austria, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based. “We will first have to go see what they are offering before we decide on the visit.” 

A senior adviser to Saddam Hussein wrote to ElBaradei and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, inviting them to return to Baghdad in advance of a key UN Security Council session on Feb 14. 

The adviser, Amer Al-Saadi, suggested the talks could focus on improving co-operation between the two sides and “methods of disarmament verification,” the Foreign Ministry said. 

Blix, who is in charge of the chemical, biological and missile inspection programmes, would not say on Thursday whether he would accept.  

He repeated that he needed more evidence of disarmament from the Iraqis.  

He said it was unclear whether any evidence Baghdad might offer in such talks would be enough. 

“They must take the questions seriously that were posed in the report,” Blix said in New York. “We would like to have responses to those questions.” 

The proposed visit would come four days ahead of their next report to the Security Council on whether Iraq has complied with a council resolution giving inspectors the right to hunt for weapons of mass destruction. 

On Monday, Blix told the council that after two months of inspections, he did not believe Iraq had “genuinely” accepted disarmament. Iraqi officials later pledged to make greater efforts to co-operate. 

The UN inspectors, meanwhile, visited at least two sites, including a factory about 30km east of here that produces fuses for missile warheads.  

A chemical warfare team went to an agricultural equipment firm, the Information Ministry said. 

Talk of a war dominated top-level meetings in Washington on Thursday as the US increased pressure on its allies to support efforts to disarm Saddam. 

President George W. Bush received Italy's premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who endorsed the US hard line on Iraq.  

In a White House session, Bush put allies on notice that he would not wait long to act, describing it as “a matter of weeks not months.” 

Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham, however, in a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, argued that a US invasion of Iraq without UN endorsement would “risk consequences.” – AP  

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