The U.N. chief weapons inspectors emerged from key talks with Iraq officials Sunday, saying they saw signs of a "change of heart" from Baghdad over disarmament demands and that further U.N. inspections were preferable to a quick U.S.-led military strike.
Both Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix were careful to avoid saying they were convinced that Iraq was now ready for full cooperation with the inspection program. Blix quipped that the "proof is in the pudding."
Asked about Blix's statement, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that President Bush has said: "Given the fact that Saddam Hussein is not disarming, time is running out.'"
However, their comments about signs of change will likely strengthen calls by France, Germany, Russia, China and others to allow more time for inspections — possibly several months — and undermine U.S. efforts to win international support for an imminent military showdown.
In two days of meetings with Blix and ElBaradei, Iraq officials handed over documents on anthrax, VX nerve gas and missile development. But Blix said there was still no immediate agreement on a key demand, using American U-2 surveillance planes to help inspections.
"We are not at all at the end of the road," Blix told The Associated Press. "But nevertheless I'm bound to note, to register, nuances and this I think was a new nuance."
The weekend session, ahead of Blix and ElBaradei's report this week to the U.N. Security Council, could help decide the next steps taken by the council in the months-long standoff that has left the Middle East suspended between war and peace.
With tens of thousands of American troops in the Persian Gulf preparing for war, President George W. Bush reiterated that it was time for action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Saddam "wants the world to think that hide-and-seek is a game that we should play. And it's over," Mr. Bush told congressional Republicans at a policy conference. "It's a moment of truth for the United Nations. The United Nations gets to decide shortly whether or not it is going to be relevant in terms of keeping the peace, whether or not its words mean anything."
However, many governments were looking for any sign from the two inspectors that the Iraqis might be responding to international pressure and that war could be avoided.
In the wake of Blix's comments, Donald Anderson, Labor Party chairman of the British foreign affairs select committee, said he hoped Prime Minister Tony Blair would now tell President Bush that the inspectors needed more time.
Anderson urged the prime minister to tell the Americans that it would be "illegitimate" and "extremely unwise" to move to war without a "much clearer mandate" from the Security Council, where opposition to armed conflict is strong.
Germany's defense minister said Sunday the Germany and France will present a proposal to the Security Council this week to send U.N. soldiers to disarm Iraq — a plan U.S. officials denounced as ineffective.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country holds veto powers on the council — reiterated his strong opposition to military action against Baghdad.
"We are convinced that efforts for a peaceful resolution of the situation regarding Iraq should be persistently continued," Putin told journalists after talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin.
Putin also rejected U.S. goals of a "regime change" in Iraq. "The task of reckoning with Saddam Hussein does not stand before us," Putin said in an interview with France-3 television, part of which was aired on Russian television Sunday. "There is nothing in the U.N. Charter that would allow the U.N. Security Council to make a decision to change the political regime of one country or another whether we like that regime or not."
Blix and ElBaradei, who make their next report to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, had gone into their weekend talks in Baghdad to press for greater cooperation on a range of issues — technical matters, such as using the U-2s and getting private access to scientists, and issues of substance, including answers to outstanding questions on biological and chemical weapons.
Blix told AP on Sunday that whereas in the past weeks Iraqi officials "belittled" the inspectors' demands, "for the first time today I think they were focusing upon these issues."
"I perceive a beginning," Blix told reporters earlier. "Breakthrough is a strong word for what we are seeing." But he added: "I would much rather see inspections than some other solution," referring to Washington's threats to launch a military strike.
Blix said he had received assurances that Iraq would expand a commission to search for weapons and weapons programs and "relevant documents nationwide," and that he had hopes that Iraq was taking the disarmament issue seriously
During the two days of meetings, the Iraqis submitted a number of documents related to outstanding issues of anthrax, VX nerve gas and Iraqi missile development, Blix said.
He said those documents would have to be reviewed intensively by U.N. experts in the coming days to determine their value. Blix also said he was hopeful that Iraq would soon enact legislation banning weapons of mass destruction.
Blix also said "we had some discussions with their scientists," but he did not elaborate.
ElBaradei said the talks showed "hopefully a beginning of a change of heart" from the Iraqis.
But he said that with the Security Council "impatient," he and Blix told the Iraqis "we want to see quick progress, drastic change. Something spectacular has to happen, a new environment in the next days and weeks."
On the issue of U-2 flights, Blix said he expected the Iraqis to respond by Friday. The Iraqis have refused to accept U-2 flights unless the United States and Britain suspend air patrols in the "no-fly" zones while the spy plane is aloft.
In other developments Sunday: