WASHINGTON -- Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture may be hiding equipment used in biological warfare programs, heightening its importance to United Nations weapons inspectors, a well-placed U.S. official said yesterday.
The possibility that the ministry might house more than documents has hardened American and allied determination to get inspectors into the building, even if military action is necessary, the official said.
The confrontation between the United Nations and Baghdad escalated over the weekend with the failure of Rolf Ekeus, head of the special commission set up to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, to get any cooperation from the Iraqis.
Mr. Ekeus returned to New York yesterday and was to brief the U.N. Security Council. Officials said the United States, Britain and France would consult on subsequent steps to bring pressure on Iraq.
Before action is taken, however, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will be given ample opportunity to decide to cooperate, the U.S. official said.
Bush administration spokesmen have said the ministry was believed to contain documents related to Iraq's ballistic missile program. Even though those documents could well have been destroyed during the two-week standoff, U.S. officials said it was vital to reinforce the principle that inspectors had access to what ever site they needed to inspect.
The possibility that equipment related to weapons of mass destruction may still be hidden at the ministry increases the importance of the inspection.
"It's harder to burn equipment than documents," the U.S. official said. The actual equipment was not specified, but was said to include equipment useful in developing biological weaponry.
The inspectors have been maintaining a vigil at the ministry since their entry was barred July 5 and have been subjected to increasingly nasty harassment by demonstrators throwing eggs and, more recently, bricks.
Yesterday, thousands of Iraqis marched past the ministry, burning U.S. flags and effigies of President Bush and chanting, "Saddam Is Staying Forever," Reuter reported.
In addition, members of the inspection team have had their tires slashed and received abusive phone calls and threatening notes. Iraqi vehicles appear to have tried to run over U.N. personnel, a U.S. official said.
At the State Department, a spokesman, Joe Snyder, said: "The U.S. is determined to see that Iraq meets all its international obligations under Security Council resolutions. We hold Iraq responsible for the safety of all U.N. personnel in Iraq. We are consulting with key coalition partners on steps to ensure Iraqi compliance with Security Council resolutions."