WASHINGTON -- Iraq's interference yesterday with a United Nations inspection team trying to seize substantial evidence of that country's nuclear weapons program has increased the likelihood of U.S. military action to force Baghdad's cooperation on arms inspections, U.S. officials said.
"It makes the prospects of the U.S. having to use U.S. helicopters and escorts more likely," one official said.
The United States has been discussing with other U.N. Security Council members giving Iraq a 48-hour deadline to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding full inspections, administration officials said.
Iraqis detained inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at a Baghdad repository for more than five hours yesterday after the inspectors sought to leave with several carloads of documents on the Iraqi nuclear program.
A spokesman for the agency said some of the documents showed Iraq was "intent on transforming nuclear know-how into a weapons program."
Armed Iraqis later forced the inspectors to leave the bulk of the documents behind, saying they would send them on today, officials said. Nevertheless, it was understood that inspectors had managed to spirit some documentation out of Iraq.
The incident added an acute new element to the confrontation with See IRAQ, 14A, Col. 1IRAQ, from 1AIraq over U.S. and U.N. demands to inspect the country's facilities for producing weapons of mass destruction, advancing the probability that the United States will "achieve cooperation by force," one official said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, in New York with President Bush, said that the United States is more pessimistic than it was last week that Iraq would comply with U.N. resolutions calling for the inspections. "It doesn't appear that Saddam [Hussein] recognizes the seriousness of the situation," he said. "The basic problem is that he doesn't want to comply."
The documents that the U.N. team were trying to take away were uncovered in a pre-dawn visit to a central Baghdad building that Iraq had not listed as part of its nuclear weapons program. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ahmed Hussein al-Samaraei told reporters at the United Nations yesterday that Iraqi forces had interfered because the 45-member group refused to record and give a receipt for the documents.
As for the renewed U.S. threats, he said, "Like currency, the more you use the threat, the less significant the threat becomes."
President Bush, addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York while the inspectors were still being held, said that six months after the Persian Gulf war cease-fire, "Saddam continues to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction and subject the Iraqi people to brutal repression."
"Saddam's contempt for U.N. resolutions . . . continues even as I am speaking. His government refuses to permit unconditional helicopter inspections and right now is refusing to allow U.N. inspectors to leave inspected premises with documents relating to an Iraqi nuclear weapons program."
Jean-Bernard Merimee of France, the current president of the Security Council, gave a new warning to Iraqi representatives as council members consulted on further U.N. action, possibly a resolution or statement.
Much as the United States welcomes reinforcement from the United Nations, however, Washington believes that existing resolutions give it all the authority necessary to enforce the inspections program.
A senior administration official said Friday that the confrontation with Iraq would come to a head within a week unless Iraq backed down.
David Kyd, a spokesman from the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a telephone interview from Vienna, Austria, yesterday that the inspectors had found two types of documents yesterday: some dealing with the Iraqi nuclear program in general and others, marked confidential, showing that Iraq is "intent on transforming nuclear know-how into a weapons program."
These included a description of various devices necessary to acquire nuclear weapons, he said.
"It was the first indication that Iraqis intended to convert [their] knowledge into a weapons capability," he said.