BAGHDAD, Iraq _ In a "major step" toward ending the crisis with Iraq and forestalling a U.S. military strike, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan won a written agreement from Iraq to give weapons inspectors unlimited access to Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces.
Annan withheld details of the accord until he could return and present it to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. The United States, proceeding with its military buildup, withheld judgment on the success of Annan's emergency mission.
"I am hopeful and perhaps even confident that this agreement will take us beyond the crisis," Annan said. "I did not come here with ultimatums. The secretary-general does not speak in those terms."
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who signed the agreement for his government, said Iraq's commitment came from Annan's diplomacy _ not from the threat of a U.S. strike.
"It was diplomacy _ wise, balanced United Nations _ world diplomacy that enabled us to reach this agreement. Not saber rattling," Aziz said, referring to the nearly 25,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. "This is an agreement of reason."
Annan confirmed that the agreement addressed the U.N. inspectors' right to unlimited access to suspected weapons sites. Iraq had earlier offered to allow inspectors into presidential sites for two months.
The United States had vigorously opposed such a limit, and agreement on that point reportedly was clinched only when Annan met Saddam for three hours Sunday afternoon.
"I can say categorically, there are no time limits or deadlines in the agreement," Annan said. "We will try to do our work in a reasonable period."
Annan said he consulted with all five permanent members of the Security Council _ the United States, Britain, China, Russia and France _ during his three-day negotiations here. Asked about U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's reaction, Annan said "she did have some questions, which I addressed, and I think we will be talking further when I get back to New York."
Annan was leaving Baghdad this afternoon for Paris and on to New York.
An endorsement by the Security Council would save Iraq from a punishing U.S. air attack, and save Washington from strong international opposition to such a strike. It would also be a triumph for Annan _ if the Iraqis hold to the bargain.
Annan's deal-making meeting with Saddam took place at the Republican Palace, one of eight presidential sites that Iraq had declared off-limits to U.N. weapons inspectors.
The inspectors are trying to determine if Iraq has complied with U.N. orders, issued at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, to destroy all long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. That condition must be met before U.N. economic sanctions can be lifted. Baghdad also says it has destroyed the proscribed weapons.
Asked when the sanctions will be lifted, Annan said "that will be determined by the completion of the work" of the weapons inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In Washington, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said preliminary accounts had been received from Baghdad, but he refused to assess them. "We've got a lot of serious questions. It's a very serious matter at a serious time, and we want to get some questions answered," he said.
The crisis over weapons inspections has brought the Gulf to the brink of war. The United States has sent a naval armada and 25,000 troops to the region to mount air strikes on Iraq.
Pro-Iraq protests have erupted across the Arab world _ Jordan had to send out tanks Sunday in one desert city to contain them _ and sent Israelis scurrying for gas masks and diplomats there preparing to leave. Israel also decided Sunday to distribute antibiotics to protect against a possible biological attack.
Britain, America's strongest backer for a military strike, credited the accord to pressure applied on Iraq. "Saddam is a man who only makes an agreement under pressure," Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today.
France and Russia, which have been critical of U.S. policy toward Iraq, said the accord was a vindication for diplomacy.
Paris "constantly defended the idea of a diplomatic solution," the Foreign Ministry said.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed satisfaction with the accord, saying Moscow had supported a diplomatic solution "from the very beginning."
Israel so welcomed a diplomatic solution. "The whole world would rather see this resolved by diplomacy rather than force, provided that the danger of an Iraqi attack, nonconventional or otherwise, is eliminated," said David Bar-Illan, the top adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.