UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 16 -- U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Monday evening that Iraq had agreed to accept a new round of weapons inspections without condition nearly four years after the last inspectors left. The announcement came as the United States ratcheted up pressure on U.N. members to draft a resolution setting a deadline for Baghdad to comply with its previous commitments to disarm and prove that it had destroyed all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The resolution would move the United States one step closer to military action against Iraq.
"I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying their decision to allow the return of the inspectors without conditions," Annan told reporters after receiving a letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.
"There is good news," Sabri said moments earlier. He and Arab League chief Amr Moussa met late with Annan and transmitted a letter from the Iraqi government on the inspectors' return.
Under Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. Inspectors left the country four years ago ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes to punish Iraq for not cooperating with inspections.
Since then, Iraq has refused to allow inspectors to return, and the stalemate has split the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China -- the five powerful members of the U.N. Security Council.
The details of the letter were not immediately available.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that the White House did not see the letter as enough and was planning to press ahead with drafting a resolution to address all of its demands.
The U.N. Security Council was to address the new developments on Tuesday.
Australia's government welcomed the news, which came Tuesday morning in the Pacific Rim nation.
"On the face of it, without wishing to be locked into this position, it does sound like a promising development," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Melbourne radio.
"Certainly, our fervent hope has been that the enormous buildup in the last few months of international pressure on Iraq, including of course from the United States and its allies, will force the Iraqis to comply with their international requirements." A spokesman said it was a cautious welcome as Iraq had previously gone back on its commitments. The conservative government has in the past said that military action was "probable."
Campaign Gaining Steam
The U.S. campaign for pressure on Iraq had been gained steam on Monday, as Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with key Security Council members. One U.S. official told NBC News that the Bush administration was optimistic that a new U.N. resolution calling on Baghdad to comply with long-standing U.N. resolutions would be drafted by the end of the week.
What remained in question was to set a date, and how to frame consequences if Iraq did not comply.
The turnabout n Iraq, after four years of stalemate, came days after President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly debate and said that Iraq must comply with Security Council resolutions or face the consequences.
Annan credited Bush late Monday. "I believe the president's speech galvanized the international community," he said.
The United States is lobbying for a strong U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq disarm, preferably with a threat of severe consequences if Baghdad does not comply.
France wants a two-stage process -- with the first resolution demanding a return of arms inspectors and a second dealing with the potential consequences of refusal.
A U.S. official said the United States expected elements of a resolution to be drafted by Wednesday and wanted the measure circulated among Security Council members by Friday.
"People are putting pen to paper," one diplomat said, adding that talks among all 15 members would begin next week.
The United States got a boost over the weekend when Saudi Arabia hinted that it might offer its desert installations as a jump-off base for any U.S. military campaign against Iraq -- as long as such an attack had U.N. sanction.
But the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, also said the rest of the world clearly wants the Iraq crisis resolved without "the firing of a single shot."
A senior Saudi official denied the prince had signaled a change of policy. "Saudi Arabia rejects any unilateral attack that has no international cover," the official told Reuters on Monday.
"The shift is in the American position, not the Saudi position," he added, referring to U.S. attempts to lobby the U.N. Security Council against Iraq rather than act alone.
Some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Saudi Arabia, most at the remote Prince Sultan Air Base. In the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia was the main base for a half-million-strong, U.S.-led military force that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait. But since then the Saudis have periodically prohibited the use of their soil for strikes against Iraq and, more recently, limited the use of their bases for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.
The Saudi foreign minister first commented Sunday in an interview with CNN. Asked whether Saudi bases would be available to Washington, Saud replied that if the Security Council adopts a resolution authorizing force against Iraq, "Everybody is obliged to follow through."
Saud said, however, he remained opposed in principle to the use of military force against Iraq or a unilateral American attack.
Later, the Saudi minister issued a more complete statement, saying, "All signatories to the U.N. Charter, including Saudi Arabia, are obligated to abide by the decisions of the Security Council, in particular those taken under Chapter 7 of the Charter."
The U.N. Charter's Chapter 7 authorizes the collective use of force, under the Security Council, in cases of threats to international peace and security.
In a related development, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that U.S. pilots patrolling the skies over Iraq are taking a new approach to defending themselves against Iraqi gunners by striking at the command and communications links in Iraq's air defense system rather than its guns and radar.
The switch, which Rumsfeld said he personally ordered more than a month ago, is designed to do more long-lasting damage to Iraq's ability to shoot down the U.S. and British pilots whose fighter jets have been patrolling "no fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq for 11 years.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell at the White House, Linda Fasulo at the United Nations, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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