WASHINGTON - Iraq, facing mounting international pressure and President Bush's oft-stated goal of driving Saddam Hussein from power, agreed yesterday to the return of United Nations weapons inspectors "without conditions," a move it said would remove all suspicion that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqi offer, contained in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was quickly rebuffed by the White House, which demanded that the U.N. Security Council continue tightening the screws on Baghdad.
"This is not a matter of inspections," the White House said in a written statement. "It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions."
In the statement, the White House insisted that the Security Council continue work on a "new, effective" resolution "that will actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to the world."
The White House went on to call the Iraqi offer "a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action. As such, it is a tactic that will fail."
The offer appeared designed to short-circuit the Bush administration's campaign to persuade the Security Council to declare Iraq in violation of numerous past resolutions and to authorize the use of military force if Iraq continued to defy the international community.
Iraq has made 11th-hour offers before in efforts to head off a confrontation with the council and prevent military action by the United States.
There was no immediate reaction from leaders of Congress, which Bush has urged to adopt a pre-Election Day resolution sanctioning the use of force against Hussein.
The Iraqi letter came four days after Bush, in a speech at the United Nations, challenged the Security Council to force Iraq to comply with a series of U.N. demands dating back more than a decade. If the United Nations failed to assert its authority, Bush warned, the United States would have to act alone.
"I am pleased to inform you of the decision of the Government of the Republic of Iraq to allow the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors without conditions," said the letter to Annan from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.
Sabri said Iraq's decision was based on "its desire to complete the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions and to remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."
The Sabri letter said Iraq is "ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections." Some analysts have said Iraq could use such discussions as a way of delaying the start of inspections.
Annan, in a brief televised statement at U.N. headquarters, said he would pass the Iraqi letter on to the Security Council, "and they will have to decide what they do next."
But in contrast with the White House, Annan gave the impression that he thought the letter had gone a long way to defuse the growing crisis swirling around Iraq. He said the head of the U.N. inspection agency, Hans Blix, and his team "will be ready to continue their work."
Annan credited Bush with causing Iraq's turnabout. As recently as Sunday, two days after the president's speech, senior Iraqi officials had insisted on imposing conditions on the return of weapons inspectors, such as the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions.
"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan said. His statement came after he met with Sabri and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League. Annan praised Moussa's "strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq."
The markedly different responses from Annan and the White House suggest that the United States may have a difficult time in uniting the Security Council behind a campaign of pressure against Iraq.
The return of weapons inspectors is widely seen by Security Council members as essential to finding out whether Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction and what programs Baghdad has to expand its arsenal.
Inspectors left Iraq in late 1998 after concluding that Iraq was not granting them access to suspected weapons sites. The United States and Britain punished Iraq with four days of airstrikes. Until yesterday, Iraq refused to agree to the inspectors' return.
Among members of the Security Council, only Britain is solidly behind Bush in holding out the threat of war to topple Hussein's regime. Other members, including France and Russia, have focused on a return of inspectors, and don't want the United Nations to authorize the use of force right away and don't share the American goal of regime change.
Bush, speaking earlier yesterday at a political fund-raiser in Iowa, used some of his most forceful language to signal that he would not consider the threat from Iraq removed until Hussein was overthrown.
"This tyrant must be dealt with," Bush said.
Briefing reporters in New York, a senior State Department official did not flatly dismiss the Iraqi offer. "At best, Iraq is willing to take the first step. At worst, it's another false promise."
Officials said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who met with foreign leaders at the United Nations yesterday, would continue to press the Security Council to pass a three-part resolution. It would declare Iraq to be "in material breach" of U.N. resolutions, say "what Iraq needs to do" to comply and "make clear there are consequences" if it fails.
Bush did not mention inspections in Thursday's speech to the United Nations. Officials have said publicly that inspections are one of the options available for dealing with Iraq. However, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have voiced strong doubts about the ability of inspectors to discover the full extent of Iraq's weapons capability.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Iraq's failure to disarm in the past represented just part of its defiance of the international community. Bush, in his speech, noted a series of other demands that Iraq had flouted, including resolutions requiring that it turn over prisoners and stop repressing Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shia population of the south.
Of Iraq's offer, the official said, "Neither the letter nor its contents was much of a surprise."
Before Iraq's offer was reported yesterday, Rumsfeld said the president had not made a decision on whether to order military strikes in Iraq.
Rumsfeld did disclose, however, that U.S. pilots enforcing the 11-year-old "no-fly" zone over Iraq have been given orders to aggressively target command posts and communication facilities associated with Iraqi air defenses.
Until about a month ago, U.S. and British pilots were authorized to take out in self-defense weapons firing at them or radar tracking them. Rumsfeld said he ordered pilots to take the new approach out of concern for their safety.
"The idea that our planes go out and get shot at with impunity bothers me," the secretary said.
Eliminating or damaging Iraq's air defenses would probably be an important initial stage of any military campaign in Iraq. Asked whether his orders of a month ago were to lay the groundwork for an invasion, Rumsfeld would only say, "Well, it won't hurt."
Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.