JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Former South African President Nelson Mandela on Tuesday slammed Washington's dismissal of Iraq's agreement to the unconditional return of UN arms inspectors, accusing the United States of "bullying" President Saddam Hussein.
Iraq agreed to the return of UN inspectors, who were pulled out of the country in 1998, amid intense diplomatic pressure to head off US threats of war over Baghdad's suspected programme to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"If Saddam has said the United Nations inspectors can come without condition, what right has he [US President George W. Bush] to come in and say that offer is not genuine?" a visibly angry Mandela told reporters at his Johannesburg office.
"On this question of Iraq they are absolutely wrong. It is the United Nations that must decide and [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan has accepted that," the elder statesman said.
"We must condemn that very strongly. That's why I criticise most leaders all over the world for keeping quiet when one country wants to bully the whole world," Mandela said.
Annan said Monday he had received a letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri informing him of the government's decision to allow the return of the weapons inspectors "without conditions."
The letter said Iraq wanted to start immediate discussions on practical arrangements for the return of the inspectors, and "remove any doubts that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction."
The White House branded Iraq's offer "a tactic that will fail" to prevent UN action to disarm Baghdad and called for a tough new Security Council resolution "to deal with" Baghdad.
Mandela charged that the Bush administration had no right to respond as it did.
"No country, however, strong they may be is entitled to comment adversely in the way the United States has done.
"We must condemn this, because they think they are the only power in the world - they are not. They are following a dangerous policy."
Mandela said other countries should be free to disagree with the United States even though they received aid from Washington.
"I want to be a friend of the United States of America but I'm not going to allow what they've done for me to shut my mouth. I will speak when they are wrong. The South African government on Tuesday also welcomed Iraq's offer and echoed Mandela's sentiments that the matter was one for the United Nations.
"South Africa welcomes the decision by Iraq to allow UN inspectors to visit the country in keeping with the UN Security Council resolutions," foreign ministry spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said.
"This underlines the critical role the United Nations play in resolving differences among member states."
Mandela warned last year against a unilateral attack by the United States on Iraq, saying it would be "a disaster."
In the past two weeks, he has repeatedly returned to the subject.
Earlier this month, he telephoned former US President George Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell to air his views, and also met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz to urge a return of the arms inspectors.
On Saturday, official sources in Tripoli said Mandela had spoken by telephone with Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi on the crisis.
The conversation touched on ways "to protect the Iraqi people" from any aggression, one source said.
Mandela told Newsweek in an interview published last week: "The attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace."
By preparing for military action against Iraq, he said, the United States "is saying ... that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries."