Mid-East: Iraq opens palace doors to the West

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The Independent Online
Iraqi newspapers yesterday said Baghdad hoped a decision to allow foreign experts to check Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces for banned weapons would defuse its stand-off with Washington.

Washington insists that UN inspectors charged with ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction must enjoy unfettered access to sites, while Baghdad says some areas are off limits to the UN Special Commission (Unscom), though other foreign experts will be allowed to visit them.

"Iraq wants to avert an explosion of the situation in the region as a result of America's aggressive escalation," Iraq's ruling Baath party newspaper al-Thawra said.

Iraqi media said Tareq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, had sent the UN an invitation for some 117 foreign experts to visit the palaces and presidential buildings to see if they contain any prohibited weapons. The invitations were extended to UN Security Council member states.

Al-Thawra urged them "to react positively". But the paper said it expected the US would try to "prevent the Special Commission and the Security Council from agreeing to the Iraq initiative.

Iraq's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, on Thursday ruled out allowing the current Unscom weapons inspectors in Baghdad to visit the palaces. "No one will be permitted to go there," he said.

Eight teams of UN arms monitors headed for Iraqi sites yesterday for the seventh consecutive day after Baghdad's decision to allow UN inspection teams, including Americans, to resume their work. The official Iraqi news agency INA said that among them was a team of nuclear weapons specialists. The agency quoted a source criticising the teams for doing inspections on Friday, which was a Muslim holiday.

Access to presidential palaces and other sensitive sites has been the main sticking point since the weapons inspections resumed last week.

The weapons inspectors have to give Iraq a clean bill of health before UN sanctions imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait can be lifted.

- Reuters, Baghdad

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