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U.S. Remains Skeptical of Iraqi Cease-Fire Offer

By Susan Sachs

Iraq switched gears Tuesday on the eve of Bill Clinton's inauguration and offered what it called a cease-fire in hostilities with the United States as a "goodwill gesture" to the new president.

The Revolution Command Council, under the chairmanship of President Saddam Hussein, said that Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries would stop firing on American, French and British planes as of midnight EST Tuesday "unless the other side opens fire."

The overture drew a frosty reaction in Washington, from both outgoing and incoming administrations.

"We will judge Iraq by its actions, not its words," the State Department said in a written reply. "Based on Iraq's past record, we will adopt a wait-and-see attitude."

Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said: "We expect full compliance with all the requirements of the U.N. (gulf war cease-fire) resolutions ... What we need to do now is see Iraq change its behavior."

But at U.N. headquarters in New York, news of the offer and a separate decision, to let the U.N. weapons inspectors come in without preconditions, were received with relief.

"I think they got the message," said the Russian ambassador, Yuli Vorontsov, as he emerged from a private meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council. "It was a long, long time we have been waiting for that reply. They could have spared (everyone) a lot of problems." Similar opinions were voiced by the British delegate, Sir David Hannay, and the Chinese ambassador, Li Daoyu.

As for the inspection mechanism, Vorontsov said that a letter from Iraq to the United Nations "was sufficient to start or restart operations."

Rolf Ekeus, who heads a special U.N. commission responsible for destroying Iraq's weapons arsenal, briefed the council, then told reporters that his commission was satisfied with Iraq's aboutface. "We hope this is the final chapter in this sad story and we can get back to business," he said.

The Iraqi council said that its offer was "meant to give time to the new administration to establish a constructive dialogue."

Baghdad particularly wants an end to the air-exclusion zones in the north and south of the country, established by the United States and its allies, and an end to the hard-hitting U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 -- as well as re-examination of other terms of the cease-fire that ended the gulf war.

The turnaround may mean more here than in the United States, where Iraq's strategy over the past week -- denouncing the outgoing American president and embracing the new one -- apparently has made little impression.

Iraqi officials repeatedly have said that they consider George Bush a "criminal" and a "devil," but hope for good relations with Clinton. Clinton has said that U.S. policy toward Iraq would not change under his administration.

For three days, Iraqi military sources reported that their artillery has fired on allied jets in the northern and southern no-fly zones, set up to enforce U.N. resolutions that ended the gulf war but rejected by Iraq as violations of its sovereignty. They also said that Iraqi aircraft have flown to meet and chase allied planes, "forcing them to flee."

But the Iraqi challenge has brought fierce reaction. Allied ships and warplanes have fired missiles and dropped bombs, targeting military installations and anti-aircraft batteries but also inflicting what the Pentagon calls "collateral damage."

Iraq said that 46 people, most of them civilians, have died in the U.S. attacks.