- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 15 (UPI) — On a weekend marked by the 15-year anniversary of Iraq's chemical attack on the Kurdish village Halabja, Baghdad invited the two chiefs of the inspection teams for Iraq's disarmament to the Iraqi capital to discuss remaining questions about its weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix, working the United Nations Saturday, confirmed receiving the letter Saturday from Amir al-Saadi, science advisor to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In comments on CNN Blix said he and Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, would discuss it after the document was translated. He did not commit either of them to a visit, however.

"I've just learned about it, and we will translate it in detail" then "study the contents of it over the weekend," Blix said. He noted the invitation was "in line with (ones received) before in January and February," then added: "Of course, the situation is a little different from before. It is more tense."

The request for what would be the inspections chiefs' third visit for talks comes as U.S. President George W. Bush and his two co-sponsors of a tough U.N. resolution prepare to travel to the Azores for final discussions. The resolution in its current form declares Iraq in material breach of its disarmament obligations and gives a very short deadline for compliance before authorizing military action.

In recent days Bush has pushed hard to bring focus on the Halabja attack, one of 40 that he said Saddam's regime inflicted on his own people. On Friday the White House offered a photo opportunity with survivors of the ordeal. And in his weekly radio address Saturday Bush described it in detail.

"With that single order, the regime killed thousands of Iraq's Kurdish citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory diseases, miscarriages, and severe birth defects among their children," he said.

Most accounts agree an estimated 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children died in the attack, part of a series of operations Iraqi forces carried in the late 1980s to quell Kurdish opposition to the Baghdad regime.

Halabja, Bush continued, "provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit, and the kind of threat he now presents to the entire world."

It is the element of threat that Bush along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar will discuss Sunday on the Portuguese island chain the Azores — both the threat of weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. allies say Iraq still possesses and the diplomatic threat of an potentially bitter split in the U.N. Security Council over their hardline resolution.

France, Russia and probably China — all veto-wielding council members — are likely to vote no should the sponsors decide to call for a vote. And despite an intense diplomatic campaign another six member nations remain officially undecided. The resolution needs nine 'yes' votes with no veto to pass.

Blix and Elbaradei are also preparing a report, due for presentation Monday, of what the U.N. chief called "the key remaining tasks" for Iraqi disarmament.

When asked whether Iraq's invitation could be a "stunt" to show cooperation just before two crucial meetings, Blix replied, "I certainly wouldn't use the word 'stunt,' but we will have to give serious thought as to what our answer will be."

Ideally, he said, the United Nations would like to hear a resolve on the part of Baghdad to speed up several benchmarks of cooperation and disarmament: faster destruction of banned missiles, clarification of other weapons stockpiles such as anthrax and mustard gas and allowing Iraqi scientists to leave the country with their families for questioning about weapons programs.

In the capital and in major cities of Iraq on Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest American threats to launch a war on their country. Students, members of the ruling Baath Party and professional unions in Baghdad chanted anti-American slogans in two separate demonstrations on the two banks of the Euphrates River, calling for jihad, or holy war, against the "occupying invaders."

Meanwhile, U.N. inspections spokesman Hiro Ueki confirmed Iraq continued to destroy its al-Samoud 2 missiles, whose range weapons experts found could exceed the U.N.-imposed limit of 150 kilometers (93 miles).

Inspection teams visited al-Taji military camp, the site where the banned missiles were being dismantled. They also visited al-Quqah installation, which has specialized in producing chemicals, and another plant that falls under Iraq's Military Industry Directorate.

(With reporting in Baghdad by Ghassan al-Kadi.)

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