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UN Contemplating Iraqi Letter on Return of Weapons Inspectors - 2002-08-16

The United Nations has confirmed that it has received another letter from Baghdad in the ongoing correspondence between the two over the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq. But U.N. officials say the letter is still being translated from the original Arabic.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri began the exchange of letters August 1, inviting the head of the U.N. weapons inspection team, Hans Blix, to Baghdad for technical talks. Weapons inspectors have not been permitted to return to Iraq since their December 1998 departure on the eve of a joint British-American bombing raid.

After consultations with the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan replied August 6, insisting that any return of weapons inspectors must comply with Security Council resolutions.

The United Nations wants the inspectors to return to Iraq before further discussions are held. The Iraqis want technical discussions, between Mr. Blix and their own experts to come before the U.N. inspection team returns. The inspectors are looking for evidence that Iraq is producing or stockpiling biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

A U.N. spokesperson, Hua Jiang, said a response to Mr. Annan's most recent letter was received Thursday night from the Iraqi foreign minister.

"It will be circulated as a Security Council document. You will recall that last Tuesday, August 6, the secretary-general had written to Mr. Sabri and indicated that he looked forward to receiving from the Iraqi government a formal invitation to the U.N. weapons inspectors," she noted.

Ms. Jiang declined to comment further on the content of the letter and the secretary-general is out of town on vacation.

But Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Al-Douri, said Baghdad's response calls for further talks on the issue before allowing the inspectors to return.

With members of Congress and senior U.S. officials talking openly about war with Iraq, some critics say Baghdad is using the exchange of letters as a way of downplaying the U.S. threat.