UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Iraq said Monday it would allow -- "without conditions" -- the immediate return of weapons inspectors, who have been barred by Baghdad since late 1998. But the United States, which has been leading an international campaign against Iraq, immediately reacted with extreme skepticism, calling the move "a tactical step."
After a day in which Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri canceled afternoon meetings with fellow foreign ministers amid reports of a capitulation, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan strode to a microphone where reporters were waiting in the evening to make the announcement.
Annan said he received a letter containing the decision and had forwarded it to members of the Security Council, which had been consulting informally on a new, tougher resolution following U.S. President George W. Bush's call Thursday for U.N. action on Iraq.
"I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," Annan told reporters.
In Washington, however, the White House immediately scoffed at the Iraqi offer, calling it a "tactical step" to avoid strong U.N. Security Council action.
"This is not a matter of inspections," deputy White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a written statement. "It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions.
"This is a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action. As such, it is a tactic that will fail."
A senior administration official added later that the United States would continue to press for a new Security Council resolution, one that recognized Iraq's "material breaches" of international law, imposed a timetable on it to comply with all 16 Security Council resolutions, and -- crucially -- spelled out the consequences if it failed to do so.
Annan said the unanimity of international opinion had swayed the government of Saddam Hussein.
"As most of you heard, almost every speaker in the General Assembly urged Iraq to accept the return of the inspectors, and I can confirm to you I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of the inspectors without conditions to continue their work," he said.
He said Iraq had also agreed "to start immediate discussions on the practical arrangements for the return of the inspectors to resume their work."
Hans Blix, the executive director of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which is mandated to conduct the inspections, has said he could have inspectors in Iraq in a week but wanted technical talks on arrangements for them prior to their arrival.
The Iraqis agreed to that essential point, according to a copy of the letter obtained by United Press International.
"To this end, the government of the Republic of Iraq is ready to discuss the practical arrangements necessary for the immediate resumption of inspections," the Iraqi letter said.
Blix also has said that it might take as long as 4 or 5 months before his team could resume full inspections.
The letter that the secretary-general referred to was written to Annan and came from Sabri.
Sabri listed the meetings he and other Iraqis held with Annan and other U.N. officials, both at U.N. headquarters in New York and in Vienna earlier this year, and an unscheduled session held on Saturday afternoon.
That session followed a meeting in a downstairs conference room of Arab League foreign ministers. They had told Sabri that Iraq must allow the return of weapons inspectors, who were pulled out of Iraq on the eve of the U.K.-U.S. bombing campaign in reprisal for Baghdad's non-compliance. They were never allowed to return.
Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa brought Sabri to the Saturday meeting that he'd previously scheduled with Annan.
Annan acknowledged as much in announcing the letter, saying: "I would want to pay particular tribute to all the member states (of the United Nations) and to the Arab League, who played a key role in this."
Annan also singled out Moussa for thanks "for his strenuous efforts in helping to convince Iraq to allow the return of the inspectors."
In his letter forwarding the Sabri missive to members of the Security Council, Annan said: "This decision by the government of the Republic of Iraq is the indispensable first step towards an assurance that Iraq no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction."
Annan also said the letter was a step "towards a comprehensive solution that includes the suspension and eventual ending of the sanctions that are causing such hardship for the Iraqi people and the timely implementation of the other provisions of the relevant Security Council resolutions."
But a senior official from the U.S. State Department said: "At best this is a first step ... The Sabri letter is not a promise to disarm and it does not address the humanitarian issues."
Among the demands that Bush laid down last week was that Iraq end the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.
Sanctions were imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War.
As a condition for ending hostilities, Iraq agreed to admit U.N. inspectors to prove it was disarming. When a clean bill of health would be given, sanctions were to be suspended, but Iraq increasingly put roadblocks in the way of the inspectors. That resulted in repeated confrontations and, finally, the 1998 halt to inspections.
(With reporting by Richard Tomkins at the White House.)