Inspectors optimistic about Iraq crisis

Despite new pressures, talks with officials `useful'


BAGHDAD, Iraq - The two chief United Nations weapons inspectors indicated they were encouraged last night after meeting with Iraqi officials about sharply raised expectations for what Iraq must produce to prove it no longer has weapons of mass destruction.

Their visit came two days after President Bush declared that "the game is over," suggesting that there was little Iraq could do, at this late moment, to deter an American attack.

Still, the inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who advocate a longer inspections mission as an alternative to war, appear to see hope, but only if Iraq makes a serious move toward compliance with U.N. resolutions in the talks this weekend - offering harder evidence, for example, to back its claims that it no longer possesses anthrax or the VX nerve agent.

After a long meeting with Gen. Amir al-Saadi, the top science adviser to Saddam Hussein, Blix told reporters: "It's useful discussions we are having. It was very substantial discussions." ElBaradei said the Iraqis are "providing explanations on some of the issues."

A senior U.N. official told reporters that the Iraqis had turned over some documents, but they had to be analyzed for their possible significance.

It was unclear whether Blix and ElBaradei would speak with Hussein, a move ElBaradei had suggested as a strong sign of Iraq's seriousness to cooperate fully with inspectors.

Hussein, who has ruled Iraq since 1979, has never met with inspectors, either in the first U.N. arms inspection mission from 1991 to 1998 or in the current round, which began in November.

Rallies in support of peace and to demonstrate Iraq's readiness for war were conducted here yesterday. Peace advocates visiting Iraq from the United States and Europe gathered in front of Al Rasheed, the Baghdad hotel in which Blix and ElBaradei are staying, waving banners against a U.S. invasion and in favor of more inspections. But in Tikrit, a city north of Baghdad near Hussein's birthplace, about 30,000 armed Iraqis held a military parade, the second large show of force here in a week.

The past few months have been dotted with a succession of deadlines and "last minute" diplomatic moves, but there is a heightened sense here that it will take something significant, and soon, to stave off war.

"Is this the last time we visit Baghdad?" the U.N. official mused, not long after Blix and ElBaradei touched down.

Both men were here less than three weeks ago for what were described as urgent talks to make Iraq comply with U.N. weapons inspections, and they left with a package of pledges from the Iraqis.

The Iraqis are showing signs that they are feeling the enormous pressure exerted by Blix's largely negative report to the Security Council after that visit and the presentation to the council last week by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who offered evidence to try to show that Iraq is an immediate threat to world security.

On Thursday, Iraq offered the inspectors an interview with a scientist outside the presence of government officials known as minders. On Friday, three more scientists were interviewed in private - two on nuclear and biological weapons and one involved in Iraq's nuclear program.

This weekend, U.N. officials say, they expect Iraq to agree to U-2 surveillance flights and to pass legislation formally banning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the officials say that will not be enough at this point. Iraq, they say, must provide concrete proof this weekend that it has destroyed its weapons or its chemical and biological agents.

One senior U.N. official said Blix "expects the transparency to go beyond these items," such as the U-2 flights or interviews with scientists.

"There should be more substantial evidence," the official said.

That evidence could take the form, officials say, of complete documents to back up Iraq's assertions that it destroyed huge stores of anthrax or VX agent produced before the Persian Gulf war of 1991, or of offering a range of scientists who can provide a consistent and credible account of that destruction.

The risk for Iraq of not complying this weekend is another negative assessment of their cooperation from Blix, who is scheduled to report again to the Security Council on Friday. Another negative report could make it harder for nations such as China and France, which advocate extending the inspections mission, to oppose a new Security Council resolution authorizing force to disarm Iraq.

Iraqi officials have said that their proof is contained in the 12,000-page declaration submitted in December and that the further questions from Blix and ElBaradei can be resolved through "technical discussions."

They also say that the inspectors have found no "smoking gun" evidence of any weapons of mass destruction and that they have been given access to any site they have requested since the searches resumed.

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