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Iraq and U.N. Hold High-Level Talks

March 7, 2002

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Iraq and the United Nations hold their first high-level talks in a year Thursday, with the United States threatening to expand its war on terrorism to the oil-rich nation that it calls part of an ``axis of evil.″

On the eve of the talks, the United States hurled a new accusation, charging that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is illegally trying to build up his country’s military with trucks acquired through a humanitarian program.

Western diplomats believe the U.S. threats have brought Iraq’s Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to New York for talks with Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the dispute over U.N. sanctions against Baghdad and the return of U.N. weapons inspectors _ a key U.S. demand.

But Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Al-Douri insisted that Saddam’s request for the meeting ``has nothing to do with the ... American threat.″

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush called Iraq part of an ``axis of evil″ with Iran and North Korea, and warned Baghdad to let inspectors in or face consequences.

No breakthroughs were expected Thursday. The Iraqi foreign minister is to return home after the meeting for further consultations, and the delegation has requested another round of talks with Annan after April 7.

``We are not in a state of negotiations,″ Al-Douri stressed in an interview. ``We are in a state of dialogue.″

Iraq is seeking an end to sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. During Thursday’s meeting, each side is to present its views, followed by a discussion, Al-Douri said.

Under the U.N. resolutions, sanctions cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been eliminated along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. Inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes. Iraq has barred them from returning, insisting it has complied with the resolutions and demanding that sanctions be lifted.

``I hope we will find a constructive way to begin the inspections so they will see a light at the end of the tunnel,″ Annan said Wednesday evening, during a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations.

``If they want to talk and if they were to come and cooperate, I think we should test it,″ he said. ``If that fails, the council will have to decide if there is any further option it wants to take.″

Asked what he thought about a U.S. military strike if talks fail, Annan said, ``If there’s going to be further action, it would be better from my point of view and the council’s point of view if the Security Council acts again.″

Iraq has shown some recent signs of flexibility.

Last week, for example, Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan granted 105 new visas to U.N. staff working for the oil-for-food humanitarian program, after months of delay.

The oil-for-food program is an exemption to sanctions aimed at helping ordinary Iraqis cope with embargoes. It allows the mineral-rich nation to sell unlimited amounts of oil provided the revenue goes to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods, pay war reparations, and improve public services such as water and education.

In another move, which Al-Douri called ``a very positive gesture,″ Iraq invited Britain to send a team to search for banned weapons. Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock dismissed the offer, saying ``we don’t see that as a serious proposal.″

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who will also be at the talks, said Iraq should redirect the invitation to his recently revamped agency, ``because we are ready.″

But Al-Douri has said Iraq would not invite U.N. weapons inspectors to return because of Baghdad’s experience with the old inspection agency, which it accused of spying.

Iraq goes into the talks with strong backing from Arab nations, which have made their opposition to any U.S. attack on Baghdad well known.

Several diplomats questioned the timing of the latest U.S. accusations about the alleged Iraqi diversion of trucks, suggesting it was meant to provoke a last-minute confrontation with Baghdad ahead of the U.N. meeting. U.S. officials said the timing was coincidental.

State Department officials presented satellite images to the U.N. sanctions committee on Wednesday, purportedly showing that Iraq has converted trucks for military use. The pictures showed trucks towing artillery, but not carrying missiles or rockets.

After the meeting, the committee agreed to investigate the U.S. claims.

Iraq has imported about 1,000 Russian and German trucks under the U.N. oil-for-food program. U.N. sanctions bar the import of any equipment for military use.

The sanctions committee has approved over $32 billion in contracts for humanitarian supplies, but has held up contracts worth $5.3 billion. The vast majority of those ``holds″ have been placed by the United States because of concerns that the goods have a potential dual military use.

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