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Despite Iraq’s pledge Monday to grant United Nations arms inspectors unconditional access to suspected weapons sites, the international community should keep a watchful eye on Baghdad’s next move, according to a U.S. expert on Middle East and Asia-Pacific security.

Richard Fairbanks, counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said in a recent interview in Tokyo that the United States will seek Tokyo’s continued support for its actions, including a possible military strike on Iraq, as well as its diplomatic backing at the United Nations.

“This is the first stage of a play, not the conclusion,” said the 61-year-old Fairbanks, who was chief U.S. negotiator for the Middle East peace process in the 1980s in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he received a letter from Baghdad regarding the inspections. The letter, delivered by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, outlined Iraq’s first acceptance of U.N. weapons inspections since late 1998, when Baghdad terminated the checks and the U.S. and Britain responded with airstrikes.

“I think it is not surprising,” Fairbanks said. “All of the Arab world, many European countries . . . everyone was urging Iraq to do this.”

Iraq’s latest move, widely viewed as an attempt to forestall a U.S. attack, was immediately dismissed by the George W. Bush administration as being too little and too late.

The U.S. will thus seek Japan’s continued support for its actions, although Washington is aware of the limitations of Tokyo’s support, Fairbanks said.

“We will certainly not ask (for) or expect direct military assistance from Japan. We all know what the circumstances in this country are,” he said, referring to Japan’s constitutional constraints on the Self-Defense Forces. “But I think we would look for logistical support, and perhaps supplies and medical assistance.”

Fairbanks added that help in the form of money from Japan and other countries would be greatly welcomed, noting that financial support from many nations was of crucial importance in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The U.S. remains resolute despite the latest overture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Fairbanks added.

“I think in Washington, the level of trust for Saddam Hussein and his government is pretty near zero,” he said. “I think they will look at this (latest offer) very carefully.”

The U.S. will still seek a regime change, as Hussein has proved to be dangerous, Fairbanks said, voicing U.S. resolve to deter the Iraqi leader’s attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Brushing aside criticism that the U.S. is acting unilaterally regarding its military posture toward Iraq, Fairbanks stressed that the accusations are misplaced.

“The U.S. does try to operate in conjunction with friends and allies, in conjunction with the best interests of the forces of peace and freedom of the world,” he said. “The president made it clear at the U.N. that the first preference of the U.S. is to work multilaterally with a broad coalition of countries, which is the opposite of unilateralism.”

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