Defying U.N. demands for access, Iraq declared Thursday that U.N. weapons monitors were not included in its invitation opening Saddam Hussein’s dozens of palaces to inspection by foreign experts.
The comments by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf came a day after Iraq said it would open the palaces to visits by international observers. American and U.N. officials accuse Iraq of hiding chemical and biological weapons in the presidential palaces.
Al-Sahhaf said the invitation was meant for international experts and diplomats - not to U.N. inspectors in the country.
“Those sovereign sites are from the very beginning completely out of Iraq’s work” with the United Nations, al-Sahhaf said in a news conference carried by CNN. Asked if Iraq would allow the experts to include the U.N. inspectors, he said: “Not at all.”
Access to the palaces has been at the heart of Iraq’s standoff with the United Nations. In Washington, a senior White House official said inspectors “must have unconditional and unfettered access.”
U.N. inspectors say such access is necessary to finish the job they started after the 1991 Persian Gulf War - overseeing the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has refused access, calling it a question of national sovereignty.
In what was seen as a move to defuse the crisis, Iraq announced Wednesday that it would allow U.N. experts and diplomats to visit the palaces as guests. No date has been set for the proposed visits, which al-Sahhaf insisted did not represent a retreat.
“This is not backtracking,” he said. “This proposal has nothing to do with backtracking, and there will be no backtracking.”
Pressed on whether the delegation would be granted unrestricted access to the palaces, al-Sahhaf said: “There is nothing in these places. We will take them to every place.”
He said Wednesday’s invitation was meant to disprove a “wave of false allegations and lies.”
In New York, the U.N. Special Commission cautiously welcomed the Iraqi proposal Wednesday but said it still wanted access to the palaces, which are believed to number in the dozens. President Clinton has put the number at 78.
At the news conference, al-Sahhaf reiterated the threat to shoot down U-2 surveillance planes. Iraqi forces have not had a chance to fire at the planes, which are piloted by Americans, he said. Iraq has said the planes have been out of range of its gunners.
“The Americans are using this plane on routes, exactly as I have described it once, as a frightened rat,” he said.
Iraq’s defiance came as the country’s National Assembly, which has little real power, issued a statement requesting U.N. inspectors finish their work within six months beginning Nov. 20, the day Iraq announced it was recalling the U.N. inspectors.
Meanwhile, U.N. spokesman Eric Falt said Iraq has refused to begin discussions with the United Nations on extending the oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to export $2 billion of oil every six months to buy food and medicine. The program must be renewed for the third time next month.
Iraq is upset about what it considers delays in approving contracts to purchase the humanitarian goods. There were reports that the United States was willing to support an increase in the amount of oil Iraq can export under the deal.
Twelve teams of inspectors drove out of their headquarters Thursday to search 14 sites in and outside Baghdad, the Iraqi News Agency reported. One team used a helicopter to reach a site and other teams used two helicopters for surveillance, it said.
Before heading out, Nils Carlstrom, the head of the search committee in Baghdad, protested “Down America” slogans painted at the Habaniyeh air base that U.N. inspectors use.
“Habaniyeh air base is a military area, no civilians are allowed in it. I am sad to see signs in the air base saying ‘Down America.’ Tell the government to take them down,” Carlstrom, a Swede, told an Iraqi Information Ministry official outside the inspectors’ office. The official did not identify himself.
The government has urged Iraqis to scrawl anti-America slogans in all public places.
The slogans greeted the inspectors when they returned to Iraq last Friday after Saddam agreed to take back expelled American inspectors, easing a three-week standoff with the United Nations.
Iraq also remains alert for a military confrontation.
At a military ceremony Thursday in Baghdad, a group of 600 young men joined Saddam’s Fedayeen, an elite commando unit headed by Saddam’s eldest son, Odai.
The Fedayeen also accepted a small group of “suicide soldiers,” dressed in white to signify that they were ready to become martyrs for Saddam. xxxx