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Weapons Inspectors Report Progress in Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

United Nations weapons inspectors reported progress Monday in their first day of discussions with Iraqi representatives but said crucial issues, including those involving access to sensitive sites, remained unresolved.

The talks are slated to be completed today.

Weapons inspectors are pushing for agreement from the Iraqis to give them greater freedom to search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles than they had when they left in December 1998.

“They’ve been positive, businesslike, and they are coming with a desire to reach an agreement,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said of the Iraqis. The IAEA is responsible for nuclear arms inspections.

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“We aim to restore as much of ‘any time, any place, unfettered access’ ... as possible,” he said.

U.N. resolutions setting up the weapons inspection system, first instituted after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, require “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted” access to all sites. But those conditions gradually eroded, and the Iraqis ultimately refused altogether to cooperate with the inspectors.

The Vienna talks, held at IAEA headquarters, are the first test of Iraq’s willingness to cooperate since Baghdad agreed Sept. 16 to the unconditional return of the inspectors.

A senior diplomat close to the talks said U.N. officials had made clear to the Iraqis that they could show good faith by offering to open up sites where inspectors’ freedom previously had been limited. Those include the so-called presidential palaces, actually a number of sprawling compounds around the country.

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Unless the Iraqis open them voluntarily, new action by the Security Council will be necessary. Access to the palaces was restricted by a 1998 memorandum approved by the Security Council, according to senior diplomats. Because the status of those sites is a Security Council matter, the U.N. officials in Vienna are not broaching the subject officially.

In contrast, the status of dozens of places, including the Ministries of Defense and Intelligence, to which the Iraqis have limited the inspectors’ access, is a significant topic.

ElBaradei and Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, who is responsible for chemical and biological weapons as well as ballistic missiles, led the U.N. team in the meetings. Amir Saadi, a special advisor to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, led the nine-member Iraqi delegation.

Blix said that in previous discussions aimed at restarting inspections, the Iraqis had been unwilling to focus on the most important issues. On Monday, however, they came “willing to talk,” Blix said. He described the Iraqi negotiators as businesslike and knowledgeable.

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The Vienna discussions are taking place in the midst of an aggressive political campaign by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to win the backing of other U.N. Security Council members for a tough new resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq fails to disarm quickly.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday that he was pleased with progress during negotiations at the U.N. and abroad over the weekend on a new U.N. resolution.

“It’s pretty much unfolding the way I thought it would,” he said in an interview on PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” Powell said the Bush administration is committed to a single resolution that outlines a three-pronged U.N. strategy to force Iraq to disarm, resisting pressure from France and Russia to leave the issue of using force--should Baghdad fail to surrender its deadliest weapons--to a second resolution.

But France, Russia and China are still objecting to the U.S.-British proposal. Still, some new resolution seems likely.

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A British envoy handed the draft of the U.S.-British proposal to Chinese officials in Beijing on Monday, but China continued to oppose the push for a new resolution authorizing the use of force.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin showed no sign of softening Russia’s stance.

Before meeting Monday in Moscow with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Putin said Russia’s position remains that no new Security Council resolution is needed. “Today’s main task is to bring international observers back to Iraq in order to solve the problems,” he said.

Russia has strong economic ties with Iraq, including potentially lucrative agreements to help Baghdad develop its oil industry whenever U.N. sanctions are lifted. In recent years, Russia has functioned as Iraq’s chief defender among the permanent members of the Security Council.

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But there was speculation in Moscow on Monday that Russia might be willing to abandon the Iraqi regime if it receives a green light from the U.S. to pursue Chechen rebels in neighboring Georgia. Russia believes separatist fighters have been using Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a refuge.

Iraq on Saturday rejected the U.S.-British proposal for a tough new weapons inspection program. It is unclear how it would respond to new demands from the Security Council that are less stringent.

A new resolution could have a large impact on the inspectors’ work by opening up more sites for surprise inspections.

Although it looms in the background at the Vienna talks, a possible new resolution has not come up so far. Senior diplomats close to the talks said they thought it was unlikely that one of the elements of the resolution--an armed force to back up the inspectors--would make much difference.

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One of the sticking points so far in the talks is the status of “sensitive sites,” dozens of buildings including such government agencies as the Ministries of Intelligence and Defense.

While inspectors were permitted to enter these sites in the past, the Iraqis limited their numbers and required that they be accompanied by a senior Iraqi official. The latter demand often meant delays of several hours before inspectors could enter--potentially enough time to hide evidence.

Other unresolved issues include whether inspectors will be allowed to open two new bases inside Iraq and whether they will be able to fly and land where they need to in order to do the inspections.

At the Pentagon on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Iraq has stepped up attacks in the past two weeks on U.S. and British aircraft patrolling “no-fly” zones established over northern and southern Iraq after the Gulf War.

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“With each missile launched at our air crews, Iraq expresses its contempt for the U.N. resolutions,” Rumsfeld said.

Since its offer two weeks ago to readmit weapons inspectors, Rumsfeld said, Iraq has fired on coalition aircraft in the no-fly zones on 67 occasions, including 14 times last weekend. Since the beginning of the year, coalition planes have come under fire in the zones 406 times, he said.

Rumsfeld’s comments came during a lengthy presentation in which the Pentagon for the first time aired footage of American and British planes coming under Iraqi fire. The presentation might have been designed in part to deflect criticism over more aggressive moves by the United States in recent weeks in the no-fly zones.

For years, coalition pilots have mainly returned fire on weapons sites. But Rumsfeld ordered a change over the last six months, broadening the list of targets coalition pilots could strike. Last week, American and British warplanes hit an airport and radar facility in southern Iraq. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that the U.S. was recently successful in striking a “major node” of the fiber-optic cable that links Iraq’s air defense system.

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Times staff writers John Daniszewski in Moscow, Greg Miller and Robin Wright in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.


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