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Iraq Says It May Allow U.N. Inspectors

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz met with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the U.N. Earth Summit in Johannesburg to discuss the possible resumption of weapons inspections in an attempt to avert a possible U.S.-led military action against the oil-rich country.

After their meeting, Aziz told reporters that Iraq “could consider” the return of arms inspectors, but only in conjunction with a “comprehensive settlement” to end U.N. economic sanctions and lift the American- and British-enforced no-fly zones over Iraq’s northern and southern regions.

“As I told the secretary general, if anybody can have a magic solution so that all these issues are being dealt with together, equitably and reasonably, we are ready to find such a solution and we are ready to co-operate with the United Nations,” he said.

In the past, Annan has rejected Baghdad’s efforts to link weapons inspections to ending sanctions. The U.N. first ordered economic sanctions and mandatory rounds of weapons inspections following Iraq’s 1991 defeat in the Gulf War.

Annan had pressed Aziz to comply with Security Council resolutions, which mandate the unconditional return of inspectors, a spokeswoman for the secretary-general told the Associated Press.

The twenty-minute meeting was “part of the ongoing dialogue between U.N. and Iraqi authorities aimed at agreeing on the return of inspectors, which in turn will lead to a comprehensive solution, including the lifting of sanctions,” Annan said in a prepared statement.

Aziz told reporters he cited several occasions in which Baghdad had invited U.S. and British officials to check for illegal weapons, but indicated that Washington appeared uninterested in employing peaceful methods to resolve its conflict.

“If they come for a special mission they are welcome, because that is what we want them to do. But if they send people who will drag their feet for years without reaching a conclusion as they did for seven-and-a-half years, that’s not going to work,” he said. Iraq initially blocked U.S. weapons inspectors in 1997 and, in 1998, banned another U.N. team, accusing its leader, Scott Ritter, of spying for the U.S.

“Let them tell us and the world that their concerns are genuine and that they are not using them as a pretext to attack Iraq — if those concerns are genuine we can find a solution to that,” Aziz told reporters.

Speaking later with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Television, Aziz called it “absurd” to allow U.N. weapons inspectors if the U.S. was determined to launch a military attack against Iraq.

“If the United States has decided to attack Iraq, it would be absurd for the inspectors to come to Iraq because they would come [only] to update their information about Iraq and its legitimate defenses,” he said. Aziz said Iraq would prepare itself for a possible attack by the U.S.

Meanwhile, in Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed Aziz’s comments about readmitting weapons inspectors, saying Iraq frequently changes its stance on weapons inspections and that Iraqi officials “don’t have a history of reliability.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell last night began his trip to South Africa, where he will attend the last days of the U.N. Earth Summit. Powell is expected to meet with many world leaders, who have voiced opposition to the Bush administration’s threats against Iraq.

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