WASHINGTON - Iraq went on the diplomatic offensive yesterday, using a new round of talks at the United Nations to challenge U.S. air patrols over Iraq and President Bush's threats against the government of Saddam Hussein.
But Iraq appears unlikely to get much satisfaction from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Under firm U.S. pressure, Annan is expected to meet the Iraqi entreaties with a simple demand: First, allow the United Nations to conduct unfettered inspections inside Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.
"No negotiations are going on," a Bush administration official said.
Yesterday's meeting came on the first of two days of talks between Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in New York that the United Nations hopes will lead to an end to Iraq's three-year ban on U.N. weapons inspections.
Before Sabri's arrival at U.N. headquarters, Iraqi officials said they wanted to talk about a lifting of U.N. sanctions against Baghdad, ending American and British air patrols over northern and southern Iraq, and what they called U.S. threats against their country.
"This dialogue addresses all issues related to Iraq-U.N. relations," Sabri insisted.
Annan, on the other hand, said he planned to "spend a considerable amount of time on the return of the inspectors," as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.
An earlier round of talks was held in March.
Although Sabri said that yesterday morning's session went well, it was unclear what was accomplished. The round of talks is scheduled to end tomorrow.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said, "We're not holding our breath" that the talks will lead to a prompt return of weapons inspectors.
The sessions opened against a backdrop of debate in Washington over possible U.S. military action to topple the Iraqi government.
The Bush administration has drawn little support overseas for such a campaign, and has been pressured by Arab and European leaders to make a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict its first priority.
Bush has said that his goal is to change the Iraqi regime.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer restated that policy yesterday, saying, "I think there's no question that the people of Iraq and the region will be safer and freer and in more peace without Saddam Hussein at the helm."
Bush has warned of U.S. military action if Iraq fails to readmit the weapons inspectors, saying Hussein will "find out" what happens if the obstruction continues.
A new U.N. inspection agency, under Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, has spent the past two years gearing up for a return to Iraq.
However, senior U.S. officials said they doubt that even a new series of inspections would erase the danger posed by Iraq's weapons programs, noting the Iraqi regime's frequently successful efforts in the past to conceal sensitive evidence.
Charles Duelfer, deputy chief of the earlier inspection program, said yesterday that any new effort would be "doomed from the start. We're asking a country to give up something it deems as essential to its survival."
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told reporters yesterday that the secretary-general would not respond to Iraqi questions about American threats.
"I think that would be for members of the council, and specifically the United States, to respond to," Eckhard said.
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, accused the United Nations yesterday of employing a double standard, saying that while the world body insists that Iraq accept weapons inspectors, it failed to press Israel to let a U.N. team investigate Palestinian allegations of an army massacre in the Jenin refugee camp.
Although the Security Council shows little enthusiasm for backing a new war against Iraq, its members are more unified than they have been in several years on seeking Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions.
A major change is a new level of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which in the past sought to dismantle the economic embargo championed by Washington.
The Security Council is close to agreement on a new set of streamlined sanctions that would allow Iraq to use its oil revenue to pay for the importation of a variety of civilian goods without prior U.N. approval.
The delivery of goods has been slowed by a burdensome sanctions bureaucracy, and Iraq has been able to use the suffering caused by sanctions as an effective propaganda tool.
Sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until inspectors certify that Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons have been destroyed, along with missiles to deliver them. But inspectors left Baghdad ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes in December 1998 and Iraq has barred them from returning. Iraq maintains it has fully complied with U.N. resolutions.
In the weeks leading to yesterday's talks, Iraq has stepped up its retaliation against U.S. and British air patrols.
Yesterday, Iraq fired artillery at American warplanes monitoring the no-fly zone in northern Iraq, and the aircraft fired back, U.S. military sources said.
According to Iraqi news reports, one person was killed and three injured on the ground.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.