Middle East: Talks begin on Iraq-UN stand-off

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With Iraq seemingly bent on defying the United Nations, the world watched nervously yesterday as negotiations on overcoming the crisis began in Baghdad. But, as David Usborne observes, hopes of a quick resolution are not high.

There was scant sign of any easy way out of the latest confrontation between Iraq and the United Nations yesterday as special UN envoy Richard Butler arrived in Baghdad for two days of crisis talks with government officials.

While sounding a somewhat conciliatory tone before talks with Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, Mr Butler rejected a deadline on concluding UN efforts to unearth and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the country.

Mr Butler, who is chief of the UN Special Commission responsible for unearthing Iraq's suspected chemical, biological and nuclear arms programmes, was responding to a speech made by Saddam Hussein at the weekend. President Saddam indicated that he might place a six-month deadline on the UN inspections ending.

"This work can be done quite quickly with full Iraqi co-operation," Mr Butler told journalists. "To demand that it be finished at a certain stage is a degree of arbitrariness that makes no practical sense."

Technically, Mr Butler is in Baghad to address two new obstacles raised by Iraq about the inspections. It is continuing to deny inspectors access to "sensitive" presidential sites.

Last week, meanwhile, it sabotaged the work of a team led by former US Marine officer, Scott Ritter.

Iraq is contending both that Mr Ritter was a United States spy and that the composition of the UN teams is unreasonably weighed down by Britons and Americans.

While insisting that Iraq has no choice but to abide by UN resolutions and allow unfettered access for the inspectors, he added: "The Council has also said that in bringing about that access, we should find ways to show respect to Iraq's sovereignty, dignity and national security."

While President Saddam appears to be confident that divisions in the Security Council will dissuade the US from taking unilateral military action against him, there were important signs of efforts by Council members to reassert their solidarity, notably from officials in France and China.