The United Nations and Iraq have delayed their scheduled talks on the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan initially met with an Iraqi delegation in early March to discuss the return of U.N. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction. A second round of talks between the Secretary-General and Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri was to have taken place April 18-19, but U.N. spokesperson Fred Eckhard says the talks are now being rescheduled.

"The secretary general's talks with Iraqi officials, which had been scheduled to take place next week, have now been postponed at the request of the Iraqi delegation," he said. "We are in the process of trying to find new suitable dates for these discussions."

Mr. Eckhard said Iraqi officials have indicated that they do not want to shift the world's focus away from the crisis in the Middle East. But many observers believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is trying to win support from Arab states against U.S. efforts to destabilize his government.

The weapons inspectors have not been permitted to return to Iraq since their departure on the eve of a British and U.S. air strike in December of 1998. The air strike was ordered because Britain and the United States said Baghdad was not cooperating with the inspectors.