By William J Cole, Vienna
UN weapons inspectors insisted on the right to roam freely around Saddam Hussein’s palaces and other suspect sites as they opened talks yesterday with the Iraqis on logistics for 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 if they redeploy to Iraq for a fresh assessment of the country's nuclear, biological and chemical programs.
Although Saddam pledged unconditional access to sites across Iraq, Baghdad has made clear it opposes any UN resolutions seeking to broaden and toughen the inspection regime.
Its resistance has thrown into question whether the eight sprawling presidential palaces up to now off-limits to surprise visits will be fair game if inspections resume.
Leaving that contentious issue to the UN Security Council, the inspectors said they were focusing on ensuring the Iraqis would provide access to other so-called "sensitive sites".
"We are aiming to restore as much as possible the concept of 'any time, any place,'" said Mohamed El-Baradei, director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, where the nuclear inspectors are based and the talks are being held.
He said the first day of talks took place in a "businesslike atmosphere".
"The mood is good," he said. "We're making progress, but we still have a good deal of work to do."
Blix said the Iraqis and the UN experts were nailing down logistics such as where the teams will be based, accommodation and security, and how samples would be taken out of the country for analysis. The talks wrap up today, and Blix said he would report back to the Security Council on Thursday.
"The purpose of the talks is that if and when inspections come about, we will not have clashes inside" over what the inspectors will do, Blix said. "We'd rather go through these things outside in advance."
Access to suspect sites will be crucial in any comprehensive assessment of Saddam's arsenal, said IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.
"We have a lot of information. We have a lot of indicators. We have satellite photographs. But we don't have a presence on the ground," she said.
"And for us, as weapons inspectors, we need to see what is below the roofs of those buildings that we see from the sky. What is going on in those buildings? We need to talk to the people. We need to see the documents in order to really find out the truth."
Nearly four years ago, inspectors hunting for evidence of weapons of mass destruction withdrew from Iraq on the eve of US-British air strikes amid allegations that Baghdad wasn't co-operating with the teams.
The Bush administration, seeking to build support for an invasion of Iraq, has cast doubt on the inspectors' main requirement: that they be given freedom to examine whatever they wish, including Saddam's palaces.
Its scepticism was reflected by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who said the Vienna talks "are focused on the existing (Security Council) resolutions, which the world knows have not been honoured".
Under a deal UN 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 them from carrying out surprise inspections at the sites, which include Saddam's palaces, and created a team of international diplomats to accompany inspectors when they did enter.
The United States and the rest of the Security Council endorsed that plan, which remains in effect. However, the Bush administration is pushing for a resolution that would nullify the deal.
But Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, whose government denies it has weapons of mass destruction, has rejected any changes in the inspections regime.
"Our position on the inspectors has been decided and any additional
procedure is meant to hurt Iraq and is unacceptable," Ramadan said at the weekend. The Iraqis were supposed to bring to Vienna a backlog of reports listing items they possess which could have military purposes, and list the locations and current uses for those items. El-Baradei said the Iraqis promised to turn over those records today.
Though the Security Council still must give final approval to the mission, the inspectors are gearing up for a mid-October deployment, Fleming said. Both teams plan to leave together from Vienna on October 15, but the date could change, she said.