BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq reversed its opposition to U-2 surveillance flights over its territory yesterday, meeting a key demand by U.N. inspectors searching for banned weapons.
The Bush administration, however, brushed aside the Iraqi concession as too little, too late. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “The bottom line is the president is interested in disarmament. This does nothing to change that.”
President Bush accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of regarding the Iraqi people as “human shields, entirely expendable when their suffering serves his purpose.”
Iraq’s acceptance of the U-2 flights, as well as its submission of new documents to the United Nations over the weekend, came as international opposition to U.S. military action intensified. France, Germany and Russia called for more inspectors to disarm Iraq without resorting to war.
“Nothing today justifies a war,” French President Jacques Chirac said at a news conference in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “This region really does not need another war.”
With the threat of war looming large, Baghdad appeared eager to display new cooperation with the inspectors in hopes of encouraging opposition to an imminent military strike.
“The inspectors are now free to use the American U-2s as well as French and Russian planes,” Mohamed al-Douri, Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press in New York.
On Sunday, chief U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei said they sensed a positive Iraqi attitude during weekend talks in Baghdad though they acknowledged they had achieved no “breakthrough.”
Blix and ElBaradei had said they expected agreement on the surveillance flight issue by the end of the week. It was unclear whether U-2s have been flying over Iraq as part of secret U.S. intelligence-gathering.
Now that Iraq has given its consent, the high-flying planes can operate over the country with Baghdad’s permission and provide its findings to U.N. inspectors.
Iraq had objected to such flights as long as U.S. and British jets continued patrols in the “no-fly” zones.
Yesterday, U.S. and British bombed a surface-to-air missile site in the southern no-fly zone, the U.S. military said. The Iraqi News Agency reported two civilians were killed and nine others were wounded.