Hussein meets demand for ban on illegal arms

Largely symbolic gesture prohibits construction, importation of weapons


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Waiting until almost the last possible moment, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein complied yesterday with one demand of the U.N. weapons inspectors by issuing a presidential decree that bans the construction or importation of weapons of mass destruction.

Hussein acted only a few hours before the two top U.N. weapons inspectors delivered their most recent report to the Security Council on Iraq's cooperation since inspections began anew here, under threat of war, in November.

Last night, the government offered no official response to the report itself. One Iraqi official said the report - which credited Iraq for generally better cooperation but complained that it still has not delivered hard evidence that it is free of banned weapons - was "less than we hoped for."

"It was fair, but not fair enough," the Iraqi official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Over the next few days, the measure of how near an American attack might be will likely depend on the physical presence of the U.N. inspectors, here since Nov. 27. Yasuhiro Ueki, the spokesman for the inspectors, said there was no indication they would be asked to leave - "not as yet, for sure."

"We are operating on the assumption our inspectors will be allowed to continue," he said.

In a visit here last weekend, Hans Blix, the chief inspector for biological and chemical weapons, told the inspectors that anyone who wanted to leave, for fear of hostilities breaking out, could do so. A handful have reportedly left Iraq, and the number of inspectors here is about 90, down from 110 at their greatest strength.

With the decree yesterday, Iraq was trying to avoid a repeat of the last report by Blix, who in late January presented a largely negative picture of Iraq's willingness to cooperate with inspectors.

Since last week, Iraq has offered several concessions to the inspectors to sway yesterday's report - as well as to persuade members of the Security Council to continue to push for more inspections as an alternative to an American attack.

After long wrangling, Iraq first offered several scientists to be interviewed in private by inspectors and then said it would allow U-2 surveillance planes to help the inspectors in their work.

Yesterday's decree issued by Hussein marked a third concession, a largely symbolic gesture the inspectors have long sought as a statement of Iraq's legal commitment to disarmament. In the decree, he repeated his claim that Iraq no longer had any weapons of mass destruction and imposed a ban on their future manufacture or importation.

He instructed his ministers to put the decree into effect and "punish those who don't adhere to it."

Hussein's decree was immediately and unanimously approved in special session by the 250-member National Assembly. The session, to which hundreds of foreign journalists were invited, was devoted to speeches denying that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and condemning the United States for threatening an attack.

"The land of Iraq will be a graveyard for all aggressors," said Saadoun Hammadi, the assembly's speaker. "On our side, there are people with high morale, highly united, believing in God and our homeland, fighting behind our courageous leader."

"On the other side," he added, "there is a front which is based on lies and is condemned by public opinion around the world."

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