By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press Writer
UNITED NATIONS – U.N. weapons inspectors said Thursday they have not found any “smoking guns” but have discovered that Iraq violated U.N. sanctions by importing parts for its missile program.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, complained that his inspectors haven’t been able to conduct private interviews with Iraqi scientists who may have knowledge of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
“We are not able to have interviews in Iraq in private and that does not show the proactive cooperation we seek,” ElBaradei said after briefing the U.N. Security Council on the progress of inspections and assessments of Iraq’s 12,000-page weapons declaration.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the council that Iraq has not made a “serious effort” to respond to his request for the names of Iraqi scientists who were involved in weapons of mass destruction programs. But both men stressed that the inspections process needs more time.
“The absence of a smoking gun and the prompt access which we have had so far, and which is most welcome, is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites, whether above ground, underground or in mobile units,” Blix told the council.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte called on Iraq to admit to weapons programs “it maintains, even today.”
“Anything less is not cooperation and will constitute further material breach,” Negroponte said, using diplomatic language that could pave the way for war.
In Baghdad, Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the inspection teams, said that a U.N. inspector had raised the possibility – without making a formal request – of taking Iraqi scientists to Cyprus for questioning. He said scientists could decide for themselves whether to go but that they were expected to refuse.
Blix told reporters earlier that he hadn’t heard of such a request but planned to conduct interviews in the near future. Negroponte said the United States expected inspectors to “to begin out-of-country interviews.”
“The burden remains on Iraq to demonstrate compliance,” Negroponte said, adding that inspectors are there to “verify Iraqi disarmament, not to serve as detectives working to overcome elaborate concealment mechanisms.”
During Blix’s briefing to the Security Council, he said Iraq had admitted in its weapons declaration to importing missile engines and raw material for the production of solid missile fuel. “This import has taken place in violation of the relevant resolutions regulating import and export to Iraq.”
ElBaradei said inspectors were investigating what happened to 32 tons of HMX high explosive that Iraq says was turned into industrial explosive but which can also be used to detonate nuclear weapons.
The inspectors are to give a formal report on Iraq’s compliance on Jan. 27. British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news – web sites) said that date should not be seen as a deadline for conflict.
“We are in the middle of a process. The U.N. inspectors have just, at the beginning of the year, got their full complement of inspectors there,” Blair told government ministers in London on Thursday, according to his spokesman.
The United States, backed by Britain, has threatened military action against Iraq if it does not comply with U.N. demands and rid itself of programs for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But Blix stressed that the U.N. resolution does not put a time limit on inspections.
He noted that Iraq’s weapons declaration confirmed his initial impression that the dossier was incomplete. “We think that the declaration failed to answer a great many questions,” he told reporters.
He said Iraq had not replied to his requests for the answers made since the declaration. “Iraq may have more to say. I hope so,” he said.
In Baghdad, Amin denied inspectors had submitted any questions and said Iraq had shown that it no longer has any weapons of mass destruction.
For much of the Security Council, the issues of Iraqi cooperation with inspectors and evidence of clandestine Iraqi weapons programs are considered crucial to support for any military action.
“We have now been there for some two months and been covering the country in ever wider sweeps and we haven’t found any smoking guns,” Blix said.
Asked whether inspectors were getting significant intelligence from the United States, Blix said: “Well, we are getting intelligence from several sources and I will not go into the operative part of that, but it’s clear that this will be helpful in the future to us.”
“We have gone to, I think, about 125 sites already,and some of them were not visited before, and there will be more. And as more intelligence comes in, there will be more sites visited. I’m confident that we will get more intelligence.”
Blix has said previously that his inspectors need intelligence from other nations because Iraq’s weapons declaration leaves so many unanswered questions that it’s impossible to verify its claim of having no weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) told The Washington Post for Thursday’s editions that in the past few days, the United States has begun giving inspectors “significant intelligence” that has enabled them to become “more aggressive and to be more comprehensive in the work they’re doing.”
But Washington is holding back some information to see if inspectors “are able to handle it and exploit it. … It is not a matter of opening up every door we have,” Powell said.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said his government wants the council to comply with Resolution 1441, adopted Nov. 8, which asks all countries to provide information on Iraq’s “prohibited programs” and recommend sites to be visited and Iraqis to be interviewed.
The United States has promised to share information with inspectors, as long as U.S. intelligence sources aren’t compromised. “We have and will continue to provide information to the inspectors,” a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Britain opened a channel weeks ago to provide the inspectors with information and “they are getting all that we can usefully give,” a British official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
French President Jacques Chirac, two days after telling his armed forces to be ready “for all eventualities,” said Thursday he hoped the Iraq crisis would be resolved peacefully and reiterated that military action must be a last resort.
Chirac said the government will work alongside the United Nations (news – web sites) to make Saddam comply with his U.N. disarmament obligations and that France would continue to push for a diplomatic solution.