No nuclear arms found by U.N. team

Official says inspectors see no evidence in Iraq of current weapons program

Scant help for U.S. claims

Report, due Monday, expected to bolster request for more time

January 25, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The chief of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency will tell the Security Council on Monday that two months of inspections inside Iraq have turned up no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime is developing nuclear weapons, the chief's spokesman said yesterday.

The report of Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, would thus fail to reinforce repeated assertions by Bush administration officials that Hussein is actively seeking a nuclear bomb. It is expected to bolster the argument of a number of countries that the inspectors need more time.

"We've checked every lead and haven't found anything illegal so far," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said yesterday in a telephone interview from the agency's headquarters in Vienna.

For several weeks, American officials pointed to Monday's reports by ElBaradei and Hans Blix, who runs the U.N. agency that is searching for Iraqi biological, chemical and missile programs, as key to assessing whether Iraq is complying with the United Nations' demand that it disarm.

This week, however, the Bush administration has sought to diminish the importance of the inspectors and made clear its own view that Iraq is not complying.

In the days leading up to the reports, top U.S. officials have taken to the airwaves and print to make the case that Iraq is systematically hiding its weapons of mass destruction and threatening with death those who cooperate with the inspectors.

But while continuing to say that "time is running out" for Iraq to disarm or face war, the United States is making no immediate move to cut off the inspections process - despite nearly a week of arguing that the absence of full cooperation by Iraq has made the process virtually useless.

U.S. officials said yesterday they won't try to block plans by Germany, which will preside over the Security Council next month, for the two chief inspectors to present a further report Feb. 14, indicating that the inspections could continue at least until then.

No decisions made

The U.S. officials said no decisions have been made in advance of the reports Monday by ElBaradei and Blix, who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Agency.

"The goal is to listen to the inspectors, talk to our friends and allies, and decide on next steps," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. French and German attempts to halt Washington's move toward war have produced a deep rift between the United States and the two European allies.

The Bush administration contends that the burden is on Iraq to prove it has no weapons of mass destruction. In a Dec. 7 declaration required by the Security Council, Iraq failed to account for large quantities of biological and chemical weapons stocks that it was known to possess in the 1990s and failed to answer questions about its development of banned long-range missiles, the inspectors have said.

But U.N. officials say American assertions about nuclear weapons development activity are less well-grounded. While the United States claims Iraq has attempted to buy aluminum tubes suitable for making centrifuges to enrich uranium into a nuclear-weapons fuel, U.N. officials say they believe the tubes were not ordered for nuclear purposes.

Likewise, about 3,000 pages of documents found at the home of an Iraqi scientist last week - some of them marked "secret" or "top-secret" - involved a now-defunct nuclear program dating to the early 1990s, they said. And results of environmental samples taken by the inspectors show no signs of a current weapons program, officials said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one U.N. official questioned whether the United States has reliable intelligence about an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program.

"I don't believe it exists," the U.N. official said. "I believe we've seen what they've [the United States] got on the nuclear side, and it doesn't stack up."

This official said that given Iraq's size, further inspections over a wider area may yet produce incriminating evidence against the regime. But he said that while certain components of a nuclear program can be kept hidden, such as nuclear-weapons plans being designed by individual scientists, "a whole nuclear [weapons] program is hard, if not impossible, to hide."

A senior Bush administration official disputed the U.N. official's views. He said a majority of the U.S. intelligence community continues to believe Iraq sought to acquire the aluminum tubes "for uranium enrichment," because of their specifications and their high cost.

Iraq has also sought to import uranium and specialized magnets that could be used in a nuclear-weapons program and has kept together a cadre of nuclear scientists, the official said.

The official added that the IAEA "has never given Iraq a final, clean bill of health. They've come close several times, and lo and behold, they find something else."

Criticism of cooperation

ElBaradei and Blix are expected to criticize Iraq for its failure to provide "pro-active cooperation" in directing inspectors to specific sites that might be used for weapons development and making scientists and others available for private interviews.

Iraq said this week that it has encouraged the scientists to participate in interviews without official "minders" present, but the scientists have declined to do so.

Blix is expected to say that Iraq continues to block flights by an American U-2 spy plane to guide inspectors to suspect sites, and that Iraq has failed to fill in numerous gaps in its December weapons declaration.

But ElBaradei, contrary to American officials' complaints, will tell the Security Council that "inspections are working. We've learned a great deal in eight weeks," Gwozdecky said. The spokesman said the IAEA chief will say that several more months will be needed to install more equipment, conduct radiation surveys and intensify the pace of inspections.

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