A U.S. congressman visiting here said today that there was a "strong possibility" Iraq would agree to unrestricted U.N. weapons inspections if President Bush backed down from his call for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to be replaced.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) said in an interview that meetings this weekend with senior Iraqi officials, including the deputy prime minister and a speaker of the national assembly, left him with the impression that Hussein's government was "very interested" in allowing inspectors to return unconditionally but wanted diplomats from countries other than the United States to serve as independent arbiters of disputes between Iraq and the U.N. inspection commission.
"I feel the Iraqis want to give peace a chance, and I'm convinced the majority of Americans want the same," Rahall said.
Rahall said he told the Iraqi leadership that "in order to give this opening for peace a chance, there has to be total, unconditional and unfettered access" for U.N. inspectors.
"But when Bush talks of regime change, they [the Iraqis] don't want to hear my message," Rahall said. "They say, 'What's the point of letting the inspectors in?' They feel that whatever they do, they're going to get hit."
Bush has said repeatedly that Hussein's ouster would be in the best interest of Iraqis and the world. Bush has called for Iraq to consent to a resumption of U.N. inspections to determine whether it has resumed nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs, but he and members of his administration have expressed doubts about whether Iraq would ever give the inspectors unconditional access. U.N. and U.S. officials have accused Iraq of hindering the work of the inspectors for almost eight years before they finally left the country in 1998.
Iraq maintains that all its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. The deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, insisted Saturday that even if his government readmitted the weapons inspectors, the United States and Britain would proceed with military action. "It's doomed if you do, doomed if you don't," he said.
Aziz, who met with Rahall for about two hours, proposed asking other nations to serve as interlocutors between Iraq and the U.N. Security Council, which oversees the inspectors, Rahall said. Echoing an idea Aziz raised with a British academic last week, Rahall said, the deputy prime minister suggested that Canada and South Africa be asked to fill that role.
The Iraqi government does not appear to have decided whether to make such a proposal, according to diplomats and analysts.
Rahall is traveling here as the leader of an American delegation organized by the Institute for Public Accuracy, a Washington-based group that says it promotes points of view "commonly drowned out by corporate-backed think tanks and other influential institutions." The delegation includes former senator James Abourezk (D-S.D.).
"If it was strictly a matter of the inspections and they felt there was a light at the end of the tunnel, this would be a totally fixable problem," said Norman Solomon, the group's executive director, who participated in the meetings with Rahall and Abourezk.
Rahall, who voted for a resolution in support of the 1991 war against Iraq, said he does not agree with the administration's arguments this time around. "It's a continuation of a vendetta of 12 years ago," he said. "It appears strange to me that a year ago this was not an imminent threat to the United States, but now, six weeks before an election, it is."
The group was scheduled to address Iraq's parliament today, but the appointment was canceled this morning. Rahall said he was told by the speaker that the body would not be in session today.