VIENNA, Austria - The United Nations reached a deal yesterday with Iraq to resume weapons inspections for the first time since 1998 - except at Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. But the Bush administration immediately rejected the arrangement and demanded a stronger U.N. resolution before the inspectors' return.
The agreement, announced in Vienna by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix after two days of negotiations with Iraqi officials, calls for the return of the first inspection team as early as Oct. 19.
But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the administration would oppose any inspections that take place under the old rules and urged the U.N. Security Council to pass a tough new resolution before the inspectors enter Baghdad.
"Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind that the United States will continue to pursue a new U.N. resolution with the Security Council," Powell said in Washington. "We do not believe that [the inspections teams] should go back in under the old set of resolutions and under the old inspection regime. And, therefore, we do not believe they should go in until they have new instructions in the form of a new resolution."
The White House has argued - beginning with a speech last month by President Bush before the U.N. General Assembly - that the rules governing weapons inspections are inadequate because they do not guarantee free access to Hussein's eight presidential facilities unless inspectors are accompanied by international diplomats.
"These are places that Saddam Hussein doesn't even go to," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday. "These are government facilities, government property, where who knows what is going on, and there's a good reason Saddam Hussein does not want people to go there and take a look at these facilities, even if he never sleeps there."
Baghdad contends that U.S. officials are seeking access to the presidential sites to spy on Iraq.
The deal with Iraq and Washington's response touched off fresh debate yesterday over a proposed Security Council resolution that was being circulated at U.N. headquarters in New York. A meeting yesterday of the five permanent council members to discuss terms for the new Iraq resolution ended without agreement.
The U.S.-drafted resolution would, among other things, delay entry of inspections teams until Iraq has provided a full accounting of its weapons of mass destruction - presumably postponing the inspectors' return. It would also authorize any member nations to "use all necessary means" if Baghdad fails to comply with any of the resolution's demands.
Blix is expected to report tomorrow to the Security Council on the new agreement reached with Iraq. The terms announced by U.N. and Iraqi officials would allow the inspectors' return under current U.N. resolutions.
"There is a willingness to accept inspections that has not existed before," Blix told reporters in Vienna. "Iraq accepts all of the rights of inspectors provided for in all relevant Security Council resolutions."
Bush officials did not take issue with Blix personally, although his agreement threatened to derail U.S. efforts to persuade other Security Council members to approve the tougher resolution. France, China and Russia - permanent council members who wield veto power - have said they want inspections before any military strike. France has proposed a two-step resolution that sends inspectors into Baghdad first, and then considers military force only if Iraq refuses to cooperate.
"We're just not going to accept something that is weak," Bush said.
Bush's position is backed strongly by only one other permanent council member, Britain.
But U.N. diplomats insisted that they were heartened by the Vienna agreement.
"We have now the assurances from the Iraqi side that we will have unrestricted, uninhibited and unconditional access to all sites, with the exception of the presidential sites," said Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the Vienna-based Atomic Energy Agency, which would assist in inspections for nuclear weapons.
As the White House tried to navigate the politics of the United Nations, it accelerated efforts to strike a compromise in Congress that would pave the way for quick passage of a resolution authorizing military action - though under more limited terms than the president would like. Congressional leaders said a White House meeting this morning could define the measure's final language.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a Republican from Indiana and an influential senator on foreign policy, said he met with three of Bush's top advisers yesterday morning to discuss a draft that he and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have offered as an alternative to the resolution that the White House has been seeking.
Their proposal narrows the goal of U.S. military action in Iraq to the enforcement of disarmament and puts more of an emphasis on assuring - but not requiring - that any use of force have multinational support.
Fleischer said that Bush objected to that proposal, saying it "ties his hands because it pulls back from many of the provisions that Congress itself cited in 1998," when it passed a resolution calling for regime change in Iraq.
The new language, Fleischer noted, does not call on Iraq's leaders, and Hussein, in particular, "to cease their support for terror, to stop repression of his own people, to cease threatening his neighbors." Lugar said his proposal deliberately separates those and other issues that many lawmakers believe are not cause for war.
But the White House seemed open to negotiation and within hours of his comments, Bush appeared somewhat conciliatory and administration officials were trying to hammer out compromise language.
"I'm confident we'll get something done," the president said.
"I think that there was a recognition that the diplomacy of attempting to gain allies to respond and try to utilize the United Nations is important," Lugar said after his White House meeting with Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez.
Biden said he believed that the version he and Lugar are proposing could result in a strong Senate vote in favor of the resolution.