Iraqi refusal tied to probe of germ tests on prisoners American-led arms team wasn't barred until it asked for records

January 15, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- United Nations weapons inspectors this week investigated allegations that Iraq conducted germ warfare experiments on political prisoners but found that records covering the suspected time period had been removed, the chief arms inspector said yesterday.

Iraq dismissed reports of prison tests as "a sheer lie."

Richard Butler, head of the special U.N. commission charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, said in a television interview that the prison inspection was conducted Monday by members of the U.N. team headed by American Scott Ritter, although Ritter was not present.

Later that day, President Saddam Hussein's regime challenged the United States and the United Nations by announcing that it would ban Ritter's team because it was overloaded with Americans and Britons. Ritter and his colleagues were blocked for a second day yesterday.

Although Iraq originally accused Ritter of being a spy, Iraqi TTC officials yesterday cited the prison inspection as the sort of activities they were trying to stop.

"I did authorize an inspection to a prison in order to look at the documentary record of the possible testing of a biological weapons agent on prisoners," Butler said. "When they got there, they looked for those documents. They didn't find them because the documents for all of the relevant period weren't there."

Butler said his commission will continue trying to determine if charges of biological arms testing -- originally made by exiled Iraqi opposition leaders -- are true or false.

In Washington, intelligence sources said the U.N. inspectors had reconstructed deleted computer files that pointed to germ war experiments at the prison but did not provide conclusive evidence.

At the United Nations, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution branding Iraq's interference an "unacceptable" violation of U.N. orders and calling on Baghdad to cease immediately. The statement was sought by the United States as a show of support for Butler, who is scheduled to leave today for Baghdad.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Security Council's threat of undefined serious consequences, issued in a similar confrontation Oct. 29, remains in effect, but he said the Clinton administration prefers a diplomatic solution.

"My optimism is waning considerably," Richardson said. "I think the world community's optimism is waning, too. Patience is wearing thin. But we should not abandon diplomacy."

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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