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Iraq hopes talks `solve the problem'

Technical talks with the United Nations on the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are making progress, an Iraqi official said Sunday. He pleaded for more time to finish before politicians' "warmongering" takes over.

Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, who led the Iraqi delegation in talks last week on the VX chemical agent, said the discussions had been "very constructive, very open and realistic."Iraq had hoped the talks would end its standoff with the United Nations - or at least stall the United States' threatened attack to end the impasse.

The Iraqi delegation presented evidence showing that the government had destroyed chemicals used to make the nerve gas and hoped it would also be able to show that all remnants of the agent itself had been destroyed, he told a news conference.

The U.N. Special Commission, which is overseeing the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, believes Iraq possessed quantities of the nerve agent and turned some of it into weapons.

Al-Saadi quoted officials on the U.N. team as saying that the talks were "not without merit but may be a little premature." U.N. officials have refused to comment.

"It's time for them (the talks). Otherwise, we will be overtaken by the warmongering," he said. "If the politicians leave us alone for a few more weeks, I think we can solve the problem."

Al-Saadi discussed only the five days of talks on VX, which ended Friday, not the six days of talks on whether Iraq still has long-range missiles and warheads.

He also refused to answer questions on diplomatic efforts to end the standoff over inspectors' access to sensitive sites, such as Saddam Hussein's palace. Should diplomacy fail, the United States and Britain have threatened to strike Iraq.

Al-Saadi insisted that showing Iraq had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction was a technical matter. "Going to palaces and other sensitive sites is absurd," he said.

U.N. inspectors must certify that Iraq has destroyed its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles before economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait can be lifted.

While the Arab League and Russian diplomats pushed for a diplomatic solution, Defense Secretary William Cohen visited the Persian Gulf to seek support for the U.S. position. Cohen said the United States would not ask to launch air strikes against Iraq from bases in Saudi Arabia - an apparent concession to Saudi sensitivities about an attack.

Saudi military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said Sunday that the kingdom has placed its forces on alert, canceled all leaves and beefed up security on the border with Iraq.

In Cairo, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, said that the 22-member league had forwarded proposals aimed at solving the crisis to the U.N. Security Council. He later spoke with the U.N. secretary-general by telephone.

"The proposals will satisfy the U.N. demands to allow its inspectors to enter sites suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction, while preserving Iraq's dignity and sovereignty," Abdel-Meguid said.

He said "certain conditions" for the inspectors' visits were under discussion but gave no other details of the proposals. He also said the Security Council - in coordination with Russia and France - was making serious efforts to resolve the crisis.

Meanwhile, Saddam's son Odai was shown on Iraqi television pledging his readiness to fight the United States.

Odai was critically wounded on Dec. 12, 1996, when dissidents opened fire on his car in a Baghdad suburb. After several operations, Odai is able to walk, usually with the aid of a cane.

"I can't run with you, but it will never stop me from carrying a gun," he said. "I have to be in good shape because it angers our enemies."

Also Sunday:

- Pope John Paul II added his voice to those calling for a peaceful solution. He appealed for diplomats to resolve the crisis.

"I'm convinced that the sides involved still have the possibility to understand each other," the pope said during an appearance at St. Peter's Square.

- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov warned the United States not to confuse the current situation with that prior to the 1991 gulf war when Iraq had invaded a neighboring country.

The situation "is critically different from what it was when Iraq occupied Kuwait," Primakov said in an interview broadcast in Russia on RTR television. "Now almost all Arab countries oppose the use of force."

- In Tehran, Iran's defense minister warned U.S. warships in the gulf preparing for a possible attack to stay out of Iranian waters, but said the ships had created no problems for Iranian forces so far.

- A group of 48 hard-line Russian lawmakers spent most of the day sitting on a passenger jet at a Moscow airport, after failing to get U.N. permission to land in Iraq with humanitarian aid.