-- Iraq agreed "in principle" today to begin destroying stocks of missiles that violate United Nations resolutions, but demanded that U.N. weapons inspectors first begin talks in Baghdad over how and when they will be dismantled.
The Iraqi statement, which was presented in a letter to chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, raised questions over whether Iraq is prepared to meet a Saturday deadline to begin destroying the Al Samoud-2 missiles and related components, or whether it is seeking to engage inspectors in drawn-out negotiations in an effort to delay a U.S.-led war.
Iraq sent the letter as Blix presented a lukewarm assessment of Baghdad's record of cooperation during more than three months of inspections. In a draft report that will be formally presented to the council on Saturday, Blix said Iraq "could have made greater efforts to finding remaining proscribed items or credible evidence showing the absence of such items. The results in terms of disarmament have been very limited so far."
Blix's decision to give Iraq until Saturday to begin destroying dozens of Al Samoud-2 missiles presented the Security Council with a potential turning point in its increasingly contentious debate over whether to agree to a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would declare Baghdad has failed to meet its obligations to dismantle its banned weapons systems. The resolution, which is co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, would effectively pave the way for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The statement from Baghdad indicates that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is prepared to back away from his assertion, made in an interview with CBS News broadcast this week, that he saw no need to destroy any missiles because none violates U.N. restrictions.
If Hussein agrees to comply with Blix's order, it would further complicate the Bush administration's policy by providing ammunition to those council members, led by France and Germany, who contend that war is unjustified and that inspections should continue.
If Hussein refuses, or seeks to engage the inspectors in drawn-out talks, the United States would stand to gain support for its argument that the Iraqi leader is not cooperating and that war is justified.
The letter to Blix was sent by Amir Saadi, a senior adviser to Hussein. In the letter to Blix, Saadi said the Iraqis express their "acceptance in principle of your request despite our belief that the decision to destroy was unjust."
Saadi added that the timing of Blix's request "seems to us to be one with political aims," and asked the United Nations to send a team to Iraq to "establish a framework and timetable" for the missiles' destruction.
The U.N. weapons inspection agency said tonight that Blix's deputy, Dimitrius Perricos, "is currently in Baghdad to clarify this acceptance and to start destruction measures."
Iraq maintains that the Al Samoud missile, which exceeded a U.N.-imposed 93-mile range limit in 13 tests, would travel within the allowed range when weighed down with guidance systems.
Senior Bush administration officials reacted coolly to the Iraqi statement, saying that it would have no impact on Washington's effort to win adoption of a new resolution.
"With respect to the missiles, it doesn't change our view of the situation in the slightest," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington. "Those missiles were prohibited in the first place. They should have been destroyed long ago. They were told to destroy them some days ago, and they've been stringing it out till the very last minute."
Speaking before the release of the Iraqi letter, President Bush reiterated that destruction of the missiles would not be sufficient to meet U.S. demands.
"The rockets are just the tip of the iceberg," Bush said. "The only question at hand is total, complete disarmament, which he is refusing to do."
Bush continued efforts to win additional support in the Security Council, where up to now the United States has failed to garner a majority in the 15-nation chamber backing an immediate move to war. He spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking that Russia not veto the U.S. resolution.
The Security Council's divisions -- which have pitted the United States against two longstanding allies, France and Germany, as well as against Russia and China -- boiled over this afternoon during a heated three-hour exchange in chamber that one European diplomat described as "ugly."
France, Germany, Russia and China continued to press the council to back a proposal to reinforce inspections and establish a timetable that would guarantee the continuation of inspections at least into the middle of summer, when the intense desert heat in Iraq would complicate U.S. war plans. France maintained that the majority of council members oppose the American text.
"This is a resolution about war," said France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere. "A majority of members [are] thinking that the time has not come to decide to go to war."
The United States, Britain and Spain sought to increase pressure on six undecided council members -- Chile, Mexico, Pakistan, Guinea, Cameroon and Angola -- whose votes will be crucial in obtaining passage of the U.S.-backed resolution.
Adoption of a Security Council resolution requires at least nine votes and no vetoes from the five permanent members -- France, Russia, China, the United States and Britain. At the moment, the United States is assured of only four votes -- its own plus those of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria. Most council diplomats said their governments would not decide until after Blix next reports personally to the council on March 7.
Chile's U.N. ambassador, Gabriel Valdes, complained that the five permanent members had failed to resolve their differences, and had thrown the decision of whether to go to war "on the back of the  elected members" of the council.
"We need a convergence of wills," he said. "There are five countries that are today permanent members of the council with right of veto, and we urge them to live up to their responsibilities to lay the groundwork for an agreement."
The two Latin American diplomats signaled their support for a compromise proposal, first floated by Canada, that would set a March 31 deadline for Iraq to cooperate. The Canadian proposal envisions the use of force if Iraq fails to disarm by that date.