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Iraq Approves Use of Surveillance Planes to Aid Inspectors

Aldouri delivered a letter to U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, headed by chief inspector Hans Blix, confirming Iraq’s acceptance of the use of the U-2 planes. The flights, using U-2 planes the U.S. would loan to the U.N., have been a repeated demand of inspectors as they continue to search out Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq had previously blocked the use of the planes, saying that they could not guarantee the safety of the intelligence-gathering aircraft with coalition fighter jets patrolling the skies over the northern and southern Iraqi no-fly zones.

“The inspectors are now free to use the American U-2s as well as French and Russian planes,” Aldouri told the Associated Press.

In response to another of the inspectors’ demands, Aldouri also said that official Iraqi legislation was being drafted that would outlaw the use of weapons of mass destruction in the country.

Aldouri said that Blix and fellow top U.N. weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, received 24 documents from Iraqi “explaining a lot of the points remaining outstanding.”

“We are looking to the international community to act. We are working hard to avoid war,” Aldouri explained.

The Iraqi acceptance of the spy plane overflights comes a day after Blix and ElBaradei concluded a round of critical talks with Iraqi officials in Baghdad that left the inspectors “cautiously optimistic” on the progress of inspections as they prepare for their next Security Council briefing on Feb. 14.

Speaking to Reuters on Monday after leaving Baghdad, Blix said he saw no new evidence during his latest trip to Baghdad and dismissed European leaders’ suggestions that more inspectors would help in the hunt for forbidden weapons programs.

“This time they presented some papers to us in which they focused upon new issues. Not new evidence really as far as I can see, but they have nevertheless focused on real, open issues and that is welcome,” Blix said on arrival in Athens.

When asked whether more inspectors would make a difference in the inspection process Blix said: “The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side, as we have said many times.”

ElBaradei also spoke to reporters Monday, expressing some disappointment that the two men were not able to meet directly with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as he had hoped.

“It would have been useful to convey our message to the president of Iraq and it would have helpful to hear from him a public commitment to full cooperation,” ElBaradei told reporters at Athens airport while in transit to IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

“We are cautiously optimistic, but would like to see actual progress in the next few days and weeks,” ElBaradei said. “We made it clear that time is critical and that … the Security Council is quite impatient to see quick progress.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Iraqi approval of U-2 flights development “does nothing” to further the larger goal of disarmament.

“The bottom line is the president is interested in disarmament,” McClellan told reporters. “This does nothing to change that.”

Soon after the official announcement of the spy plane approval, Iraqi state television read new comments from Saddam, including a stipulation that U.S. and Britain should not launch further air raids on Iraqi defense facilities during the surveillance flights.

“If the world, besides America, finds that the U-2 plane is important to carry out more aerial surveillance, it should tell America and Britain not to open fire at us. Otherwise, this demand would be a call for the surrender of Iraq to the American military force,” Saddam said, according to a Reuters report.

“They [the international community] should ask America and Britain to stop attacking Iraq for a certain period while these planes are being used,” he added.

U.S. and British aircraft attacked an Iraqi mobile air defense unit in the country’s southern no-fly zone on Monday, according to U.S. Central Command.

The attack, which utilized precision-guided weapons to target a mobile surface-to-air missile system, marked the second such bombing in three days by coalition forces tasked with patrolling the no-fly zones.

“The facility’s presence in the no-fly zone was a threat to Coalition aircraft,” Central Command said in a statement.

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