VIENNA, Austria – U.N. weapons inspectors demanded the right to roam freely around Saddam Hussein's palaces and other suspect sites when they opened talks with the Iraqis Monday on the logistics of a possible return to Baghdad.
Chief inspector Hans Blix, leading the closed-door meetings with an Iraqi delegation, said the inspectors were operating under the assumption they would be able to go anywhere, anytime if they return to Iraq for a fresh assessment of the country's nuclear, biological and chemical programs.
The dispute came to a head after the Bush administration repeatedly accused Iraq of blatantly violating U.N. resolutions requiring Baghdad to disarm. Washington threatened to unilaterally remove Saddam from power because more than a decade of international pressure had failed to win Iraqi compliance.
When President Bush made an impassioned plea for tougher U.N. action at the General Assembly last month, Saddam switched course and pledged unconditional access to sites across Iraq. But in recent days Baghdad has rejected any new U.N. resolutions to broaden and toughen the inspection regime. Iraqi resistance has thrown into question whether the eight sprawling presidential palaces — up to now off-limits to surprise visits — would be open to renewed inspections.
“We're telling the Iraqis we don't want any limitations on our access,” a senior diplomat close to the talks said on condition of anonymity.
The issue of palace inspections and some other contentious matters would require amending the most recent U.N.-Iraq agreement on inspections. While the Vienna meetings have addressed those topics, a decision on changing the sanctions regime would have to be made by the U.N. Security Council once Blix reports back on Thursday.
Under a deal U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan cut with Baghdad in early 1998, the inspectors' access to eight so-called presidential sites encompassing a total of 12 square miles was restricted. The deal prevented inspectors from carrying out surprise visits to the sites, which include Saddam's palaces. The deal also created a team of international diplomats to accompany inspectors when they did enter.