Expert: Saddam Has Bought Some Time

LONDON -- Iraq's unconditional pledge to readmit UN weapons inspectors has bought Baghdad breathing space, but U.S. military action remains likely, a leading British researcher who visited Baghdad last week said Tuesday.

Toby Dodge, who held lengthy talks with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, described the Iraqi move as a "real breakthrough" but said Baghdad's promised cooperation faced the toughest international scrutiny.

"[The chance of war] is around 60 percent from 85 percent last night," Dodge, a respected analyst on Iraq at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said in a briefing.

"I still think it will happen but it's much more difficult," he said, adding that Iraq had made no secret that it was bracing for a war in which it would try to lure U.S. troops into urban street fighting to counter Washington's supremacy in the skies.

The United States, committed to a policy of regime change in Baghdad, dismissed Iraq's surprise move as a tactic to avoid United Nations action, saying it was doomed to fail. Britain, Washington's staunch ally, was also skeptical.

Dodge said he suspected Iraq would allow the return of UN weapons inspectors -- charged under 1991 Gulf War cease-fire resolutions with overseeing the scrapping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- but might try to revive special accords on access to sensitive sites like presidential palaces.

"If they've got any sense ... they won't do that for at least a few weeks, and that won't be brought up until the inspectors are on the ground," he said.

Dodge said the offer followed a week of "policy turmoil" in Baghdad as Iraq sought to respond to U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to forge an international coalition against President Saddam Hussein.

"They were clearly worried and scrabbling for a diplomatic solution," he said.

Aziz had expressed concern the United States would use the inspections to update intelligence on military targets in Iraq, Dodge said, citing what Baghdad said was a precedent in the run-up to four days of airstrikes in December 1998.

The attacks, codenamed Operation Desert Fox, were launched by the United States and Britain just hours after UN weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq, complaining of repeated obstruction in November.

"They claim that nearly all the sites inspected that month were bombed in Desert Fox with a degree more accuracy than they would have been if they had not been inspected," Dodge said.

"Why should we give the United States more strategic targeting information by letting the inspectors in?" Aziz asked.

Complaining Iraq had no means to air its grievances over previous inspections, Aziz suggested identifying "non-biased interlocutors," possibly from Canada or South Africa.

At the same time, Iraq openly aired its hopes to tie down U.S. troops in bloody street fighting if war broke out.

"They were quite overt ... about the idea of trying to tempt American troops into the cities," Dodge said. "The rather wishful example of both Somalia and Beirut kept being replayed."