WASHINGTON - Iraq reacted with defiance yesterday to American and British proposals for tough new arms-inspection measures even as Russia, Baghdad's strongest supporter on the United Nations Security Council, agreed to give the proposals a careful look.
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said in Baghdad that U.N. inspectors would have to follow procedures previously agreed upon between the inspectors and Iraq. These call for advance notice to Iraq of inspections at sensitive Iraqi sites, including presidential palaces, and for inspectors to be accompanied on some searches by a team of diplomats.
"Our position on the inspectors has been decided, and any additional procedure is meant to hurt Iraq and is unacceptable," Ramadan said.
Ramadan's reaction put Iraq back on a collision course with the United States just days after officials in Baghdad said they would allow unfettered U.N. inspections. But because the U.N. Security Council has yet to issue a formal ultimatum, Iraq is not yet forced to choose between cooperating and facing attack.
The United States, with British backing, has proposed an overhaul of the U.N. inspections program, requiring total access to any site of the inspectors' choosing, into any program, as well as the ability to interview the people involved at any time.
With demands for an Iraqi disclosure of all its weapons programs and a seven-day deadline for agreement to the new inspections program, the proposals are designed to force an early series of tests of Iraq's readiness to give up its weapons programs.
A U.S. draft of a new Security Council resolution would allow the United States and other countries to use "all necessary means," a euphemism for military action, to force Iraqi compliance.
But even as Ramadan spoke yesterday, Iraq appeared to be losing important ground on the Security Council, where the United States and Britain are circulating their draft of a resolution aimed at disarming Iraq.
After previously rejecting the idea of a fresh resolution imposing tough new demands on Iraq before the inspectors return, Russia indicated a willingness to negotiate over the U.S. and British draft resolution.
"Our position is that U.N. weapons inspectors should return to Iraq as quickly as possible," Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said in televised comments. "The necessary conditions for this exist. But we are prepared to look carefully at the position of all the members of the U.N. Security Council." Moscow, which has important economic links to Baghdad, has in the past been Iraq's main advocate on the council.
Ivanov met yesterday in Moscow with Marc Grossman, American undersecretary of state for political affairs, and senior British diplomat Peter Ricketts, who briefed Russian officials on the U.S. draft resolution. Grossman said afterward that the Russians "had some questions; we tried to give some answers."
'Up for discussion'
Bush administration officials said yesterday that the United States is prepared to negotiate the terms of the new resolution, including the proposed tight deadlines for Iraqi compliance. "We don't have a resolution yet. Until then, everything is up for discussion," a White House official said.
But a senior official added: "Our whole design is to make sure Iraq is tested every day - every day they're asked for a document, every day they're told to open a door, every day they're asked for an interview." The U.S. proposal calls for inspectors to be withdrawn any time Iraq is uncooperative, at which point the United States would be allowed to attack.
President Bush, in his weekly radio address, said yesterday that "the dangers we face [from Iraq] will only worsen from month to month and year to year. To ignore these threats is to encourage them - and when they have fully materialized, it may be too late to protect ourselves and our allies."
Referring to a British report that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack with 45 minutes' notice, Bush also said Iraq could build a nuclear bomb within a year if it obtained fissile material.
Hans Blix, who heads the U.N. arms-inspection agency set up to dismantle Iraq's biological, chemical and long-range missile programs, is scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials early this week in Vienna, Austria, to work out practical arrangements for the inspectors' return. But the United States has threatened to block any return of inspectors until the Security Council spells out new rules for Iraqi compliance.
The coming Security Council negotiations amount to a tug of war between the United States, which wants maximum flexibility to launch a military strike if Iraq refuses to disarm, and countries aiming to restrain Bush from going to war - at least without their approval and control of the timing.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has stood solidly behind Bush in public, and British officials have collaborated closely with Americans in private. But even London's agenda differs slightly from Washington's.
Bush administration officials believe changing the Iraqi regime is the only reliable way to strip Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
The British say Saddam Hussein must be confronted with a "credible threat" of force but say Iraq might be disarmed without having to go to war to topple him. They want to set up an "effective" series of U.N. inspections, diplomats say, and they have faith in Blix's skill.
France, which like Russia has supported Iraq in the past, favors holding off on military action as long as there is a chance Hussein can meet the U.N. disarmament demands.
President Jacques Chirac of France has called for two resolutions, an approach the Americans don't like but haven't rejected. The first would authorize U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. If Iraq refused to cooperate with the inspectors, a second resolution would be adopted authorizing the use of force. From all outward indications, neither a visit by Grossman to Paris on Friday nor a phone call from Bush changed Chirac's mind.
"The objective is the rapid and unconditional return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq. A simple, firm resolution, which shows the unity and determination of the international community, could help on this front," said a spokesman for Chirac.
China, whose developing economy is increasingly dependent on Mideast oil, shares Russia's and France's aim of preventing a war, particularly one waged by the United States alone.
The draft resolution
The current U.S. resolution draft began with a text negotiated by American and British diplomats but was largely rewritten at the White House after the Pentagon and the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney demanded tougher language, an administration official said.
The new draft holds Iraq in "material breach" of a series of U.N. demands dating back more than a decade. It imposes a tough inspections regime that wipes out previous restrictions on inspectors spelled out in a 1998 memorandum of understanding between Iraq and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Under the resolution, Iraq would have to fully disclose all of its programs for weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis would also be held to a short timetable for demonstrating cooperation with the inspectors. For the U.S. military, timing is crucial: If a war has to be fought, it would be far better to finish it before a harsh desert summer.
In the end, a Western diplomat predicted last week, the council probably will agree on a resolution that gives neither a "green light" nor a "red light" to military action.
U.S. officials predict that Chirac may drop his opposition to a war against Iraq if he is convinced that Bush is determined to use force and act alone if necessary. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, they said, may come to see that his country has a better chance of benefiting economically if it doesn't try to block the formation of a new regime in Baghdad.