Iraq: More U.N. inspections not needed

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A senior Iraqi official said Monday there is no need for U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad, and he branded allegations that Saddam Hussein still has weapons of mass destruction a ”lie.”

In response to the comments by the Iraqi information minister, the U.S. State Department said Baghdad was refusing to give a straight answer on resuming inspections after nearly four years.

”They refuse to face up to their obligations and obfuscate and look for ways to move the goal posts when it’s a simple situation,” spokesman Philip Reeker said.

”The issue is not inspections but verified disarmament,” he said. ”Iraq needs to disarm.”

Iraq’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, said President Bush was lying about the country’s alleged weapons programs to drum up support for his Iraq policy, which calls for Saddam’s ouster.

Bush ”knows that he is standing in quicksand when it comes to his baseless talk on Iraq,” al-Sahhaf told the Arabic satellite television Al-Jazeera.

Al-Sahhaf also said Iraqi opposition leaders who met with key American officials in Washington last week were ”bats … and a bad American product.” He called American courting of the opposition figures ”a stupid game that reflects their (U.S.) bankruptcy.”

His remarks came as many countries have expressed opposition to the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq and as Baghdad has opened a campaign portraying itself as the victim of false U.S. propaganda.

Al-Sahhaf said the U.N. work concerning alleged Iraqi weapons programs was completed. ”They claim something remains. This talk can be responded to and disproved,” al-Sahhaf said.

”This is a lie. This is an American stance,” he said of Washington’s insistence Iraq still possesses or seeks to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

A report by the U.N. inspection agency issued in January 1999 – a month after inspectors were withdrawn – mentioned priority issues that Iraq had not satisfactorily resolved.

Despite intense discussions within the Bush administration about preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq, the president said Saturday that he had no ”imminent war plan.”

It was not clear from al-Sahhaf’s remarks whether Iraq was shutting the inspectors out for good. Baghdad has been sending mixed signals on whether it will act on its recent invitation to U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to meetings in Iraq to determine how to resolve outstanding disarmament issues.

The inspectors’ return is a key demand of the U.N. Security Council, and especially of the United States.

In New York, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said there would be no comment on al-Sahhaf’s remarks. He said Secretary-General Kofi Annan had sent an Aug. 6 letter to Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, ”and we’re still awaiting an official reply to that letter.”

Annan’s letter told Iraq it must accept the Security Council road map for the return of weapons inspectors. Sabri’s Aug. 1 invitation to Blix outlined a proposal for talks that was at odds with the council’s blueprint.

Later Monday, Sabri told reporters at Saddam International Airport that Baghdad was preparing a reply to Annan’s letter.

Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War, cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq’s biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.

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