U.S. pushes questioning of scientists outside Iraq

White House seeks to speed data gathering as deadline approaches

January 14, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration expects that international inspectors will try to bring Iraqi scientists and engineers out of the country starting next week to interview them about their knowledge of the country's weapons programs, according to American and European officials familiar with the inspection teams' plans.

The interviews, officials say, may be conducted on Cyprus or at United Nations facilities in Europe. They are being timed to extract information from the scientists prior to the report to the United Nations Security Council on Jan. 27 by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who are directing the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

The pace of the inspections is becoming an increasingly central issue, with the fast approach of the weapons inspectors' report.

While the Bush administration is pushing for a faster clip, other Security Council members and the inspectors themselves are calling for patience. In recent days, several European officials and other members of the Security Council have said they could not back any military action against Iraq without the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, or evidence that President Saddam Hussein is blocking the inspectors.

Yesterday, ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the teams "still need a few months to achieve our mission." Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, affirmed that he did not see the Jan. 27 report as a deadline. "We can see a lot of work ahead of us beyond that date if we are allowed to do so," he said.

So far the inspections have yielded almost no new information. In hopes of speeding things up, American intelligence officials have now put together a list of about 100 scientists and engineers who they believe are central to Hussein's weapons programs, and they are pressing the weapons inspectors to take willing scientists - and their families - to a place outside of Hussein's control.

"The idea is to make sure that life starts getting a lot hotter for Saddam in the next few weeks," said one official familiar with the plans. "This is how we will know whether we are getting cooperation or a pattern of noncooperation. This should give us a much better picture."

But American officials are far from sure that the effort to get scientists to leave Iraq will work. Under the U.N. resolution, the scientists must leave voluntarily, and Blix has often warned that U.N. inspectors are not in what he once called "the abduction business." Exactly how the scientists and their families would be taken out of the country is still something of a mystery.

American officials have been adamant that the operation be run by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, so that they do not fuel Iraqi charges that the inspections are being run by American intelligence. But after the interviews are over, the scientists will likely be placed into the equivalent of a witness protection program, or given some form of residency in the United States or other countries.

If the scientists refuse to come out of the country, or if they are intimidated by Hussein, the administration would try to cast the issue as another "material breach" of U.N. Resolution 1441. The administration has already argued that Hussein's 12,000 page "declaration" of weapons was such a breach, because it omitted information about programs inspectors had previously detected.

From well before the arrival of the first inspection teams in Baghdad, Bush's top national security aides said they held out little hope that the inspectors would find much at the sites they had monitored prior to their involuntary withdrawal from the country in 1998.

Success or failure, they predicted, would depend on defections. But so far there do not appear to have been many of those. Blix has always seemed hesitant, fearful either that the scientists would not come, or that they would fear retaliation against their extended families and even friends. "We cannot force anybody to go abroad or force them to defect," Blix said Thursday.

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