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European Countries Welcome Iraqi Offer - 2002-09-17

European officials are welcoming Iraq's decision to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors. But they differ over whether the international community should take Baghdad at its word or seek further action to make sure it complies with existing U.N. resolutions on the matter.

The two most influential countries in the European Union, France and Germany, agree that Iraq's unconditional acceptance of the return of U.N. arms inspectors after a four-year absence is what German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer calls "a step in the right direction" to avoid war.

Mr. Fischer says the Iraqi move provides an opportunity for the U.N. and Iraq to reach a political solution. But he warns that Baghdad must fulfill its obligations under U.N. resolutions calling for it to allow weapons inspectors into the country.

Mr. Fischer says it is now in Iraq's hands alone to prevent a tragedy.

The German government has opposed any U.S. military action against Iraq and has ruled out sending German troops to participate in an attack, even under a U.N. mandate. But a German diplomat in Brussels, echoing his boss in Berlin, says the ball is now in Iraq's court.

France is insisting that the U.N. must take Baghdad at its word and send inspectors to Iraq as soon as possible to make sure there is no threat from weapons of mass destruction.

General Jean-Pierre Kelche, France's top military officer, says it could take 6-12 months to get a full picture of Iraq's military capabilities.

General Kelche also warns against any potential U.S. pre-emptive attack against Iraq, saying such a move would bring about chaos.

The same feeling is being expressed by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who says the U.N. must convince Iraq to cooperate with the weapons inspectors in order to avoid an American attack.

The United States, whose stated policy is the ousting of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, has said it will take action against Iraq if the U.N. does not force the regime in Baghdad to disarm.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson also welcomes the Iraqi offer, but says Saddam Hussein's actions matter more than his words. Mr. Robertson says NATO is waiting to see whether the Iraqi leader complies with what he has promised, but acknowledges that the Iraqi crisis is a matter for the United Nations and not for the alliance.

At the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, a spokesman said Iraq's offer to readmit U.N. inspectors was long overdue. But he declined to comment on the skeptical reactions of the United States and Britain, which cast doubt on Saddam Hussein's motives and indicated that his offer would not resolve the crisis.