Compromise in the air as Saddam steps back

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The Independent Online
The prospect of a military confrontation lessened yesterday as United States officials stressed their preference for a diplomatic solution and Iraq proposed a possible compromise on weapons inspections. Mary Dejevsky reports on a day of intense diplomatic activity.

It was last night that Iraq signalled a possible shift in its position. Three days after expelling US weapons inspectors and precipitating the withdrawal of all United Nations inspection teams, President Saddam Hussein told a cabinet meeting that Iraq was "not seeking a confrontation with the US administration".

His words - only his second public comment since the crisis began - were rushed to the outside world by the official Iraqi news agency, which also quoted him as saying that if a solution were found, Iraq would be "happy", but if others chose "another way than dialogue", they would be responsible.

The report of Saddam's statement came shortly after the French newspaper, Le Figaro, had released extracts from an interview with the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, in which he set out a plan for a possible compromise. His proposals, to appear in Le Figaro today, include an undertaking that the six Americans expelled from Iraq last week would be allowed back, but only if the UN agreed to restructure its weapons inspection teams to reduce the US presence. Amid a bluster of aggressive rhetoric, he proposed the formation of an overseeing committee of experts "whose impartiality would not be in question". He said that the five members of the UN Security Council - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - should be represented equally. Iraq's complaints derive from its view that the inspection teams are biased in favour of the US which is using the inspections for its own intelligence-gathering.

While the aircraft carrier USS George Washington continued on its way to the Persian Gulf - ordered by President Bill Clinton, it is said, to proceed slowly to give more time for the options to be examined - the talk in the US was all of diplomacy.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, slipped extra visits - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait - into her whistle-stop Middle East tour. But she appeared to find little support for the use of force against Iraq.

On Sunday morning US television talkshows, members of the administration, including the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, and the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, all emphasised their strong preference for a diplomatic outcome.

"Our first preference", said Mr Berger, "is to solve this by diplomatic means ... our second preference is to work multilaterally". He said that the US was still engaged in "a concerted effort through our friends and allies" to persuade Saddam to back down. The Russians were said to have agreed to use their leverage with Iraq to that end.