Iraq Proposes U.N. Talks, and Gets a Wary Reply

New York Times, February 5, 2002

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 4 — Confronted with growing threats from Washington, Iraq has offered to have a dialogue "without preconditions" with Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United Nations reported today. Mr. Annan replied that "he will check his calendar," a United Nations statement said.

The offer was relayed to Mr. Annan by Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, who had been to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. A terse statement issued by the United Nations said Mr. Moussa had "returned with a message from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein saying that the Iraqis were prepared to resume dialogue with the secretary general, without any preconditions."

"The secretary general indicated that he was prepared to receive a delegation from Iraq to discuss implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions," the statement said. "He will check his calendar to find a mutually convenient date."

There was no immediate reaction from Washington, where President Bush proclaimed Iraq a partner in an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iran in his State of the Union address last week, raising expectations that Mr. Hussein might be the next target of the war on terrorism.

Diplomats at the United Nations said the offer relayed by Mr. Moussa had all the hallmarks of an attempt by Mr. Hussein to build up international resistance to an American attack. They noted that Mr. Hussein issued a similar offer more than a year ago, when sanctions against Iraq were under discussion, and that his officials came to the United Nations with documents to try to prove that they were in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

But while Mr. Moussa was making Iraq's overture to the United Nations, a senior Iraqi official warned that the United States would face "dreadful" consequences — worse than those of Sept. 11 — if it continued to "trample whole nations" and "interfere in domestic affairs of other countries."

The official, Taha Yasin Ramadan, vice president and longtime adjutant to Mr. Hussein, made the comments in an interview published today by the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei. He was interviewed in Baghdad.

In strident tones, the Iraqi official chastised the Russian Foreign Ministry — but not President Vladimir V. Putin — for cooperating with the United States in proposing a new set of sanctions under which a trade embargo could be lifted against Iraq in return for Baghdad's agreement to submit to United Nations inspections of its weapons programs.

He warned that if new sanctions were imposed on Iraq, "Russian businessmen will be the first to be affected." That threat was obviously intended to get the Kremlin's attention this week as United States and Russian negotiators meet in Geneva to draw up a list of nonmilitary export items that could be approved for Iraq if it agreed to allow United Nations arms inspectors to return.

The Bush administration believes that Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction at sites that have been off limits since United Nations inspectors left the country in 1998. In the last year, Russia has become the crucial vote on the Security Council as China and France have joined the majority to press Iraq to comply with the disarmament terms it agreed to at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

The United Nations' response to Iraq's message was carefully phrased, officials said, to indicate that Mr. Annan was not rushing to accept another round of wide-open discussions with the Iraqis, and that if he did agree to talks, it would be specifically to discuss the return of the arms inspectors to Iraq.

According to the officials, Mr. Moussa said Mr. Hussein was prepared to discuss all issues, while Mr. Annan sought to underscore that he was only prepared to discuss the return of weapons inspectors. Mr. Annan lay stress on that message by inviting Hans Blix, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to the meeting with Mr. Moussa.

Mr. Hussein has barred weapons inspectors since 1998. He has also waged a strenuous diplomatic campaign against the sanctions that have been in force since 1990, steadily gaining support at the United Nations Security Council. Last November, the United States won agreement from Russia to change the sanctions regime as of June.

Richard Butler, the former head of the United Nations special commission to disarm Iraq and now a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the offer of talks was an approach the Iraqis had used in the past. "The difficulty it raises for us is we can expect a considerable number of countries, including in Western Europe, will say the U.S. should take this proposal seriously, and should get into talks with Iraq rather than take military action," he said.

"If such talks were to take place," Mr. Butler added, "the absolutely critical issue would be the resumption of arms-control inspections, and I would expect the United States and others to feel obliged to insist that any inspections be real and not illusory."

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, speculation has constantly centered on the Bush administration's desire to complete the campaign that the first President George Bush initiated against Mr. Hussein. Already in November, the current President Bush expanded his definition of terrorism to include the development of weapons of mass destruction, a theme that was confirmed in the State of the Union address. The speech has been widely interpreted as a statement of intention to go after Mr. Hussein.

If there is no campaign, the United Nations Security Council is expected to impose a new sanctions arrangement in June under which Iraq would be allowed to import virtually all civilian goods that are not on a "goods review list" of items that might have military use.

The Security Council imposed the sanctions on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. When the sanctions threatened to create a catastrophe for Iraqi civilians, Iraq was offered a program that allowed it to sell oil. The profits go into an escrow account under United Nations control, from which they are disbursed to buy food and other civilian supplies.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company