U.N. weapons inspectors conducted their first-ever search of one of Saddam Hussein's palace compounds Thursday, accompanied by senior diplomats whose presence cleared their way into the previously off-limits sites.

One diplomat, Horst Holthoff of Germany, described Iraqi cooperation as "fantastic, absolutely positive."The arms experts saw "everything they wanted to," Holfhoff said, without elaborating.

The American-led team left U.N. headquarters this morning in a convoy of more than 20 vans and buses, following through on a Feb. 23 accord brokered by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to open eight presidential compounds to inspections.

"So far, the agreement is holding. That's all I ever wanted," President Clinton, who had threatened military strikes to force access, said Thursday from South Africa, the latest stop on his African tour.

A U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the inspectors went to Saddam's Radwaniyah palace outside Baghdad, believed to be one of the largest of the presidential compounds.

The inspectors examined two of the palace's three parts Thursday, spokesman Ewen Buchanan in New York said. They broke into several teams inside the compound, Holthoff said.

The inspectors must certify that Iraq is rid of all its long-range missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons before the U.N. Security Council will lift economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.