France and others insist U.N. inspectors return to Iraq

Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — Security Council members who opposed the war in Iraq — including France, Russia and Germany — are insisting that U.N. inspectors be allowed to join a weapons hunt now being conducted exclusively by the United States.

The Bush administration, which went to war after failing to convince those countries that Iraq needed to be forcefully disarmed of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, says it will search for them on its own.

But the French, German and Russian ambassadors suggested Tuesday that compromising on disarmament may get Washington something it wants even more — an end to U.N. sanctions that are holding back Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.

French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere proposed several months of suspended sanctions, a step short of lifting sanctions, which President Bush is seeking.

In the meantime, the French diplomat said the council could look for ways to combine the work of U.N. and U.S. inspectors “so that the Iraqi disarmament could be internationally verified.”

“Then sanctions could be lifted when a legitimate Iraqi government is in place,” he told The Associated Press.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said he was willing to listen to the French ideas but that sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime no longer made sense.

“The president is looking forward, not backward,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Fleischer expressed confidence in the U.S. search teams, each with about a dozen members from the CIA, Pentagon, FBI and other agencies.

The American teams have visited about 50 sites in Iraq so far and haven’t found any banned weapons. The teams, whose numbers are expected to grow to nearly 1,000 people, have effectively replaced Blix’s inspections team.

Blix’s inspectors, working in Iraq between November until mid-March, didn’t find any evidence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction. Blix was openly skeptical of U.S. intelligence that attempted to show otherwise.

As a result, many administration officials blame Blix for their failure to win council support for the war.

Still, some U.S. diplomats have said they could consider some form of cooperation with U.N. teams once Blix steps down in June. One possibility would be to invite U.N. inspectors to verify any U.S. finds.

Since the war broke out, Blix has expressed resentment toward the Americans and disappointment that his work was cut short by the war. He has pushed for his inspectors to be sent back in but told AP they wouldn’t be led “like dogs on a leash” by the Americans.

Blix said he believed the Americans would be objective, but “the world and the Security Council … would like to have inspection and verification which bear the imprint of an independent institution.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency charged with carrying out nuclear inspections, seemed less willing to work with the Americans.

“The IAEA continues to be the sole organization with legal powers … to verify Iraq’s nuclear disarmament,” ElBaradei said in a written statement to the council.

Under council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990 cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.

While sanctions remained in place, the United Nations established a complex system known as the oil-for-food program that used oil profits to purchase food and medicine.

France and Russia benefited greatly from the program, which allowed them to sign major contracts with Saddam’s government. As a result, they will lose money once the sanctions program ends.

While opposing the war, both Paris and Moscow have made no secret of their desire to be part of the country’s reconstruction. Some diplomats saw France’s proposal as an effort to protect its financial interests.