BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – “Business-like” talks with Iraqi officials have set the stage for a decisive new round of weapons inspections starting next week, including possible unannounced drop-ins on President Saddam Hussein’s palaces, the chief U.N. inspectors said yesterday.
“The world and the Security Council want assurances that Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction,” the chief of the U.N. inspection team, Hans Blix, said on a stopover in Cyprus after wrapping up two days of talks in Baghdad.
An Iraqi vice president said the Baghdad government will cooperate fully with the inspectors, but he warned the Americans against inserting spies into the inspection teams.
In the Czech Republic, where he was attending a NATO summit, President Bush also struck a combative note on Iraq, playing down the importance of the inspectors’ return to Baghdad, and again threatening military action if inspections don’t work.
“People tend to focus on the inspectors as if the inspectors are the end,” Bush told reporters. What’s important, he said, is eliminating any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “He’s going to disarm,” he said of Saddam, “one way or the other.”
British and Australian officials said they were engaged in contingency planning with the Americans for a possible eventual attack on Iraq.
In the southern no-fly zone, meanwhile, U.S. warplanes bombed three air defense sites yesterday after the Iraqis fired missiles and anti-aircraft guns at U.S. and British planes, the U.S. military said. An unidentified Iraqi officer said the strikes were against “civilian installations,” the Iraq News Agency reported.
It was the sixth such encounter in the past seven days.
The U.N. teams are returning to Baghdad under a new U.N. Security Council resolution describing the inspections as a “final opportunity” for Iraq to meet its post-Gulf War obligations to give up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
As the chief inspectors left, 20 U.N. staff members got down to basics: Floors were washed and telephone lines connected as they readied the inspectors’ former offices for their return after a four-year absence. A “hotline” phone link to key Iraqi officials was in the works.
“Everything’s being done in a rush,” U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said.
The staff doubled with the arrival yesterday of more technical support crew. The first main contingent of weapons inspectors arrives Monday, and the first field inspections are expected two days later.
A dispute over Saddam’s “presidential sites” contributed to the breakdown in the U.N. inspections regime in December 1998. The Iraqis had obstructed visits to a few compounds they designated sensitive, until a compromise arrangement allowed inspections with notification and a diplomatic escort.
The new council resolution ignores those arrangements and demands full, unfettered access to all sites.
“That is settled by the resolution,” Blix replied when asked whether the issue had arisen in his Baghdad talks with Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and other Iraqis. “It wasn’t even discussed. They accept that.”
In general, the former Swedish diplomat described the discussions as “professional,” “business-like” and “constructive.”