Powell dismisses Iraq weapons talks offer

US secretary of state Colin Powell has dismissed Iraq’s offer to talk to the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector.

US secretary of state Colin Powell has dismissed Iraq’s offer to talk to the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector.

‘‘Inspection is not the issue - disarmament is, that means making sure that the Iraqis have no weapons of mass destruction,’’ said Powell, who was in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, to discuss economic ties and the fight against terrorism with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

‘‘We have seen the Iraqis try to fiddle with the inspection system before. You can tell that they are trying to get out of the clear requirement that they have. The goal is not inspections for inspection’s sake.’’

Zalmay Khalilzad, who advises US president George Bush on Middle East and Persian Gulf questions, said the administration was sceptical that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would make good on his commitment to disarm.

‘‘Iraq has not fulfilled that obligation,’’ the National Security Council staff member said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a private research group.

‘‘We don’t see anything new about this, but we are not opposed to it,’’ Khalilzad said about foreign minister Naji Sari’s invitation to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send the head of the UN inspection team, Hans Blix, to Baghdad for talks.

On the other hand, Scott Ritter, an American who resigned from the UN inspection group in 1998, said of Iraq’s offer: ‘‘It’s a brilliant diplomatic move.’’

‘‘Iraq knows that this is the last chance they have,’’ Ritter said.

Ritter said that when inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, all nuclear facilities had been destroyed and there was no evidence that Iraq rebuilt the installations.

Still, Ritter said, since Iraq was capable of rebuilding a nuclear device, it would be best to let the inspectors back.

If they found no weapons, it would mean exposure for ‘‘the Bush policy which has put regime removal before arms inspections’’, he said.

The Iraqi offer coincided with rising administration rhetoric against Iraq and Bush’s refusal to retract a threat to consider a military attack to get rid of Saddam.

The administration suspects Iraq has secret caches of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Iraq agreed after the Gulf war in 1991 to disarm and to let UN inspectors check whether Saddam’s government had rid itself of all its weapons of mass destruction and destroy what remained. Inspectors have been barred by Baghdad for almost four years.

Saddam must agree unequivocally to inspections ‘‘anytime, anywhere’’, said Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman.

‘‘There’s no need for discussion. It should be a very short discussion.’’

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, Sen Richard Shelby, says he believes Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction at multiple sites and a pre-emptive strike is warranted to stop Saddam.

‘‘Every month, every week, Saddam Hussein will have more weapons of mass destruction to use against us,’’ Shelby said in an interview with The Associated Press yesterday. ‘‘Why put it off?’’

The Iraqi letter hinted, but did not say explicitly, that talks with Blix could lead to resumed weapons inspections.

McCormack said even if inspections were resumed they were only a means to disarmament, not a goal in themselves.

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