Iraqi officials opened talks with UN experts on resuming weapons inspections with the stakes high as the United States pressed for rapid and unlimited access to sites in Iraq.
A breakdown in negotiations would strengthen the US case for military action against Iraq.
Hans Blix, chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) said the Vienna talks would focus on "practical arrangements for inspections" so that "if and when inspections come about we will not have clashes inside."
These arrangements include details such as visas, office space, landing rights and providing security for the inspectors, IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said.
Blix said he would be reporting back to the UN Security Council on Thursday after two days of talks here.
The Security Council is facing pressure from the United States to issue a tough new resolution on Iraqi disarmament that will guarantee unlimited access to sites and threaten military action if Baghdad fails to comply.
Iraq has said it is prepared to give the UN inspectors unfettered access to go anywhere, but has made clear it will accept no new conditions on their mission.
Blix said the UN team would have unlimited access but he refused to be specific about whether the inspectors could visit all sites, specifically presidential palaces, without delay, an issue that helped scuttle inspections nearly four years ago.
The Iraqi side is being represented in Vienna by Amer Al-Sadi, special advisor to President Saddam Hussein.
Al-Sadi has called British Prime Minister Tony Blair's charge that Iraq could be as little as a year away from having a nuclear bomb as "nonsense, absolute nonsense."
Under threat of possible unilateral US military action, Iraq agreed on September 16 to allow UN weapons inspectors to return "without conditions."
The United States wants to modify the current UN resolution that mandates the inspections.
Resolution 1284 says that if Iraq allows UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to resume work and cooperates fully with them, the crippling sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August 1990 could be suspended.
But the administration of US President George W. Bush has said Saddam cannot be trusted.
It wants to shore up 1284 -- adopted when former president Bill Clinton was in office -- with a new text spelling out what Secretary of State Colin Powell has called "the hard consequences" if Iraq fails to comply.
One of Powell's senior aides, Marc Grossman, undersecretary for political affairs, tried in Paris and Moscow over the weekend to garner support for a new text.
But France maintains that it opposes any resolution that provides for the automatic use of military force.
"We don't want to give anyone free rein to launch military action, as we want to assume our responsibilities to the end," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a commentary published in Tuesday's edition of Le Monde.
Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States are the five permanent members of the Security Council with a veto over its decisions.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov insisted on giving priority to the "quickest possible return" of weapons inspectors to Baghdad.
The IAEA is in charge of inspecting for nuclear weapons programs. Its director general Mohammed El-Baradei was at the talks.
UNMOVIC looks for chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with a range over 150 kilometres (90 miles).
Blix last met Iraqi officials on September 17, the day after Saddam agreed to allow weapons inspectors back without conditions.
Blix said he hoped to have an advance party in Iraq on October 15.
Copyright 2002 AFP