- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

NEW YORK Iraq appears to be seriously considering allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to return, more than three years after barring them from the country, a top U.S. diplomat says.

"I think a lot of people are telling us the Iraqis are seriously thinking about this now," James Cunningham, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters.

Since March, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has held two rounds of talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the return of inspectors who left Baghdad ahead of U.S. and British air strikes 3½ years ago and have been barred from returning.

"As long as the secretary-general and his people think there's a chance of bringing the Iraqis to that point for whatever reason, we think it's a useful thing to do," Mr. Cunningham told a group of reporters on Wednesday.

Mr. Cunningham said the Iraqis have had "ample opportunity" to exchange views with Mr. Annan, discuss technical issues with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, and consult Security Council members on other questions it raised. Some were political, including U.S. threats to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and U.S. and British enforcement of "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq.

"I don't think anybody thinks that this process should drag on for months," Mr. Cunningham said, noting that the 15 members of the Security Council were united in wanting the inspectors to return as soon as possible.

The council imposed sanctions after Saddam's forces marched into Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions can only be lifted when U.N. inspectors declare that Iraq's nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons programs have been dismantled, along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.

The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to revamp the sanctions system, capping a yearlong effort by the United States and Britain to get more humanitarian goods to the Iraqi people and try to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam's hands.

The resolution allows the free flow of most civilian goods into Iraq and requires U.N. approval for delivery of civilian items with potential military use on a 332-page checklist.

Yesterday, Iraq said it reluctantly accepted the new sanctions plan, though the Iraqi leadership has criticized it. According to the official Iraqi News Agency, officials portrayed the U.N. measure as U.S. manipulation of the Security Council.

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