Iraq will allow U.N. inspectors to use U.S., French and Russian surveillance aircraft to search the country for evidence of hidden chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, said today.

The announcement came as the United Nations' top weapons inspectors prepare to brief the U.N. Security Council Friday on the extent of Iraq's cooperation. It appeared timed to influence the debate in the 15-nation council, where France, Germany and Russia are seeking support for a proposal to reinforce U.N. inspections to stave off a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Douri said he presented the inspectors today with a letter spelling out Iraq's commitment to ensuring that Iraqi antiaircraft batteries would not fire on the surveillance flights. Douri said the letter also pledges that the Iraqi parliament would pass a new law "in a very short time" making it a crime to participate in any efforts to develop banned weapons.

"The letter says Iraq accepts the surveillance by [U.S.] U-2s, [French] Mirages and [Russian] Antonovs," he said. "Iraq will provide the protection from its side."

Although the Nov. 8 U.N. resolution requires Iraq to allow reconnaissance flights over the country, Baghdad has refused to guarantee that they will not be shot at unless the United States and Britain suspended their patrols over "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq.

President Saddam Hussein, in a statement read on Iraqi state television today, urged other governments to call on the United States and Britain to halt airstrikes launched as part of their enforcement of the no-fly zones. "If the world, besides America, finds that the U-2 plane is important to carry out more aerial surveillance, it should tell America and Britain not to open fire at us," he said. The United States and Britain maintain that the patrols, which were established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect Iraq's Kurdish and Shiite Muslim populations, only fire in self-defense.

The Bush administration said the Iraqi concessions on surveillance flights were a tactical gesture designed to divide the council and weaken its resolve to compel Baghdad to disarm. "We've been down this road before and unfortunately we know it's a dead end," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

But French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a joint press conference in Paris, seized on Baghdad's latest show of cooperation as further justification for putting off war and allowing inspections to continue. Iraq also allowed the first unmonitored interviews with Iraqi scientists last week. "Iraq is offering more information and [has] shown a greater wish and willingness to cooperate," Putin said

Hans Blix, the head of the U.N. weapons inspections commission, echoed U.S. criticism of the initiative from France, Germany and Russia to bolster the inspections. Blix said the more than 100 inspectors in Iraq now are sufficient. "The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side," Blix told the Reuters news agency in Athens today.

Blix told reporters last week that the resumption of U.N. reconnaissance flights, unmonitored interviews with scientists and passage of the new law by the Iraqi parliament were "minor points" on the road toward the peaceful disarmament of Iraq.

Although he acknowledged during a two-day visit to Baghdad over the weekend that Iraq has stepped up cooperation, he said that U.N. inspectors continue to face "difficulties" conducting private interviews with key scientists and obtaining a full account of Iraq's deadliest weapons programs.

Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, said U.N. flights would not be targeted.