Iraq has rejected a new U.N. resolution that would return arms inspectors to Baghdad after a year-long hiatus, declaring today it is "ready to face all of the consequences in defense of its sovereignty and legal rights."

U.S. diplomats said they view the resolution, passed by the U.N. Security Council on Friday, as a key step in their efforts to prevent Saddam Hussein's government from developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In return for cooperation, the resolution provides for a possible suspension of nine-year-old U.N. sanctions.

But Iraq, which has expressed its opposition to the resolution all along, formally rejected it today, with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz saying it does not meet Iraq's "legitimate demand for the lifting of the sanctions."

Iraq is "ready to face all of the consequences in defense of its sovereignty and legal rights," Aziz said, according to the state-run Iraqi News Agency.

Aziz derided the United States and Britain, chief backers of the resolution, saying their true objective is "to cheat international public opinion," not to achieve an end to U.N. sanctions.

The resolution establishes a new weapons inspection agency to oversee the destruction of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons along with missiles that could deliver them. If inspectors report full cooperation and progress toward answering outstanding disarmament questions, the resolution offers to consider suspending sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

State Department spokesman James Foley said that Iraq's reaction did not come as a surprise, but that the nation does not have the right to refuse to comply with the Security Council resolution.