UNITED NATIONS — Claiming Iraq was seeking the “path of peace,” Saddam Hussein’s government agreed Wednesday to the return of international weapons inspectors, accepting a stringent U.N. resolution two days ahead of a deadline.
Although Iraq accepted the tough terms, President Bush warned he had “zero tolerance” for any Iraqi attempts to hide weapons of mass destruction and said a coalition of nations is ready to force Saddam to disarm.
Iraq’s nine-page letter of acceptance was laced with anti-American and anti-Israeli statements as well as stern warnings for U.N. weapons inspectors.
In contrast, Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, said his government had chosen “the path of peace” and its acceptance had “no conditions, no reservations.”
Still, the harsh tone in Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri’s letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and its warnings about how Baghdad expects inspectors to behave, raised questions about Iraq’s plans to cooperate with the resolution.
Annan, speaking to reporters in Washington after meeting with Bush, said he would wait to determine Iraq’s intentions.
“I think the issue is not their acceptance, but performance on the ground,” Annan said. “Let the inspectors go in, and I urge the Iraqis to cooperate with them and to perform.”
Annan said the advance team of inspectors is scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on Nov. 18. They have until Dec. 23 to begin their work and must report to the Security Council 60 days later.
If Iraq fails to cooperate, the resolution orders inspectors to immediately notify the council, which will discuss a response.
By Dec. 8, Iraq must declare all its chemical, biological and nuclear programs, according to the terms of the resolution.
Al-Douri said his government has nothing to fear from inspections because “Iraq is clean.”
In the letter, Sabri accused Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of fabricating evidence that Iraq possessed or was on its way to producing nuclear weapons — and had already stockpiled biological and chemical weapons.
“The lies and manipulations of the American administration and British government will be exposed,” Sabri said.
He also warned that Iraq plans to closely monitor the inspectors while they are in the country. In 1998, Baghdad accused inspectors of spying for the United States and Israel.
Under Security Council resolutions adopted after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, U.N. inspectors must certify that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs have been eliminated along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. Only then can sanctions against Iraq be lifted.
Iraq’s acceptance culminates a two-month campaign that began with Bush’s Sept. 12 speech to the U.N. General Assembly challenging world leaders to deal with Iraq’s failure to comply with the international demands to disarm.
On Tuesday, Iraq’s parliament rejected the resolution, but it has no power and Annan and others said they would wait for the official government response.
Bush declined to discuss the letter, though he thanked the U.N. Security Council for unanimously adopting the U.S.-backed resolution last Friday.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the test of Iraq’s compliance would come in Baghdad’s actions.
“We’ve heard this before from Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime,” he said. “The U.N. resolution is binding on Iraq, and the Iraqi regime. Saddam Hussein had no choice but to accept the resolution.”
Officials in Russia, which has long-standing economic and political ties to Iraq, welcomed Saddam’s decision to accept the return of inspectors.
“We were confident that Iraq would make this decision, which opens the way for a political resolution of the situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said. “Now it is important that the international inspectors quickly return to Iraq.”
In Baghdad, state-run television announced Saddam’s acceptance of the Security Council resolution two hours after Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri told the rest of the world.
Iraqi TV showed images of Saddam, in a dark suit and tie, presiding over a meeting of his Revolutionary Command Council, made up of senior military officers. The picture was frozen on the screen while an announcer read the message recounting at length a history of Iraq’s dispute with the United Nations.