WASHINGTON -- The idea appeals to many: The Iraqi weapons that so concern President Bush should be uncovered and destroyed by U.N. weapons inspectors. That way Saddam Hussein would be defanged and all the uncertainties of a second Gulf war could be avoided.
That's the way many Europeans see it, as does U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Saddam, who expelled United Nations inspectors in December 1998, also showed interest in the concept by dispatching his foreign minister and weapons experts to confer with Annan in New York on March 7.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believes Saddam is serious and says the return of the inspectors is a ''must.''
But the Bush administration is wary. Some members seem to prefer the inspectors not return at all.
''You could put inspectors all over that place, and it would be very difficult to find anything,'' says Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says weapons inspections would be a step forward only if the inspectors were allowed free rein.
That is the same message being delivered by Vice President Dick Cheney on his travels through Europe and the Middle East. He has met resistance to the idea of a U.S. military attack on Iraq.
Bush, for his part, implied on Wednesday that Saddam ought to be a target because ''he won't let inspectors into the country.'' Bush's message seemed to be that he would stop rattling sabers if only Saddam would invite U.N. weapons experts back.
The Europeans, supportive of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, see war against Iraq far differently.
German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger gave expression to Europe's concerns in a recent speech.
''What would be the legitimacy of such an intervention?'' he asked. ''Who is going to be in charge of the post-Saddam rehabilitation of Iraq? If allies are expected to shoulder part of that burden, what would be the exit strategy?''
Annan said after his March 7 talks with the Iraqis that the tone and the makeup of Saddam's envoys left him encouraged.
The meeting, Annan said, was an indication ''at least for now that they are taking this issue seriously.'' Another meeting will be held in April.
But haggling over the conditions for the inspectors' return is not what the Bush administration has in mind.
When asked last month about the possibility of such talks, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, ''It should be a very short discussion.'' Any new inspection agreement, he said, must be ''on our terms.''
Annan has been burned once by the Iraqis. He brokered a deal in February 1998 that opened Saddam Hussein's palaces to the U.N. inspectors.
''We have a serious, credible agreement,'' Annan said at the time. By December, the Iraqis had expelled the inspectors, and they have not been back since.
Iraq began showing flexibility on inspections after Bush designated it an ''axis of evil'' country in his January State of the Union speech.
Even before Bush's speech, Charles Duelfer, deputy chairman of UNSCOM weapons inspectors from 1993 until 2000, counseled against defining the Iraq problem exclusively in terms of weapons the Security Council says it can't have.
''Leaving the Iraq issue in the Security Council is a sure way to wrap a line around our propeller should we wish to address the Iraqi threat directly,'' Duelfer wrote in a January opinion piece in the Washington Post.
If Annan came to an agreement with Saddam, Duelfer said, ''there would be tremendous enthusiasm on the part of some council members to declare success. Washington would be hard-pressed to declare the terms inadequate.
''Once again we would have kicked the Iraq problem down the road without addressing the fundamental threats posed by the regime,'' he said.
Rumsfeld said UNSCOM had success during its seven years in Iraq only when it got information provided by defectors. The U.N. team got nowhere, he said, by ''snooping around on the ground.''
The task for a new team of inspectors would be even more daunting, he said.
''The Iraqis have had more time to go underground ... They've had lots of illicit things that have come in,'' he said.
''They have advanced their weapons of mass destruction programs. They've developed greater degrees of mobility. They are very accomplished liars.''
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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