Iraq pronounced itself "ready to deal" with outstanding questions about its arms programs today, agreeing to allow scientists to be interviewed here without government officials present and even inviting CIA agents to visit suspected weapons sites.
Iraq, however, still would not commit to permitting scientists to be taken abroad for interviews, as the United States has demanded, and said it would supply no more documents to fill in the "gaps" found by U.N. inspectors in a 12,000-page declaration about its weapons programs submitted this month.
"We don't have any more," Gen. Amir Saadi, a top adviser to President Saddam Hussein, said at a news conference this evening. "We don't have any more documentation. But we are ready . . . to work and cooperate with" the inspectors.
"We do not even have any objection if the CIA sent somebody with the inspectors to show them the suspected sites," Saadi added.
The statements marked Iraq's most extensive response yet to the Bush administration's declaration three days ago that Iraq is in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions for failing to fully disclose its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Saadi denounced what he called American "lies and baseless allegations" and called for the inspectors to be allowed to work without pressure from the United States.
The pronouncement also underscored Iraq's strategy to head off war with U.S. forces gathering in the Persian Gulf. While standing by its assertion that it possesses no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Iraq has embraced the U.N. inspection process in an effort to undercut the credibility of U.S. claims and isolate the United States from would-be coalition partners around the world.
In contrast to the 1990s, when Iraqi officials routinely obstructed and denounced U.N. inspectors as dupes and spies, Hussein's aides have opened all doors and praised this latest round of examiners, even contending that their work has confirmed the Iraqi position. The Iraqi officials have all but ignored criticism by the chief inspector, Hans Blix, that their declaration was incomplete, and instead have in effect portrayed the U.N. team as an ally against reckless U.S. warmongering.
"Iraqis are calculating, 'Let's do all we are asked for and then there will be no pretext for war' -- or at least real reason for war understood by other players in the world," said a diplomat here. "I was told that [government officials] were told if an inspector wants to lick your mouth, you open your mouth and wait for him to finish."
"Iraq will go to the extreme of cooperation with the U.N. weapons inspectors as we will never give the American and British governments the pretext they are looking forward to get in order to start their unfair war against our country," Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh told the Gulf News during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
As part of the strategy, Iraq continued to woo its Arab neighbors today by making another gesture to Kuwait, the tiny neighboring emirate it invaded in 1990, setting off the Persian Gulf War.
Iraq returned a load of stolen paintings, carpets and other items owned by the Kuwaiti royal family during a meeting at a border post. Hussein last month apologized to Kuwait for the invasion and has agreed to renew long-frozen talks next month on the fate of Kuwaitis who went missing during the occupation.
So far, though, the strategy has met with limited success. Even Hussein seemed frustrated today that Iraq has not been able to rally international opinion against the United States. "We have told the world we are not producing these kind of weapons, but it seems that the world is drugged, absent or in a weak position," he told a delegation from Belarus, according to an Iraqi news agency.
The latest maneuvering came as most of the international nuclear inspectors left the country after nearly wrapping up the first stage of their work. Chemical and biological inspectors remained in Iraq.
A U.N. official reported that specialists from the International Atomic Energy Agency took air, soil and water samples from 27 sites over the past three weeks and are awaiting results to determine whether tests show any indication that Iraq has continued work to develop a nuclear bomb.
Thirteen nuclear inspectors packed up and left today, and two others flew out a few days ago, leaving just six behind. The IAEA team has come close to completing its preliminary inspections of all known sites and will begin "a more investigative phase" in which it will study procurement files, factory inventories and consumption records in an effort to compare them with previous data, said U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki.
Iraq tried to portray this as an indication that it had been essentially cleared on the question of nuclear weapons, even though the atomic energy agency officials have made no public determinations. "We don't have a problem with IAEA," Saadi said. "We're not concerned about the nuclear file. It is closed for all intents and purposes."
In responding to the U.S. statements last week, Saadi ridiculed some of the assertions as "rehashed allegations" from long-ago reports by U.N. inspectors, who he said tried to tamper with chemical samples to falsify results.
Saadi acknowledged that Iraq tried to procure crude uranium oxide known as "yellow cake" in the mid-1980s but said no further purchases were made. He said that Iraq developed 1.5 tons of VX nerve agent in 1990, but that the material degraded rapidly and the program was abandoned. U.S. reports have said Iraq produced 3.9 tons, but Saadi did not address the discrepancy.
The Iraqi government today signaled more flexibility in meeting demands for interviews with scientists. "We believe in most cases they would want to conduct interviews here privately without the presence of Iraqis," Saadi said. "Okay. We have no objections." But taking them overseas, he added, still "raises so many pitfalls" that Iraq is not yet ready to agree.
The degree to which Iraqis are trying to declare common cause with Blix's inspection team has been striking. Saadi chastised Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today, accusing them of impeding the inspections. "Why don't they let the specialized organs of the United Nations get on with their task? Why interfere in their work in this crude fashion?"
If it were left up to the inspectors, Saadi said, Iraq could work out a peaceful settlement of the issue. "If, as we are given to understand, they are professional, they are not in anybody's pocket and they would look at all questions objectively, we believe we can reach understanding."