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UN's Chief Inspector Cites Lack of Evidence vs Iraq

11 September 2002

The UN's chief weapons inspector said yesterday that until inspectors return to Iraq, the world body has no firm evidence - including any activity spotted on aerial photographs - that the country is trying to rebuild weapons of mass destruction.

"We don't have roof-penetrating satellites," Hans Blix said in an interview with the Globe, pointing to a satellite photograph of Baghdad that adorns his office wall. "You cannot necessarily draw conclusions."

Earlier, after presenting his latest report to the UN Security Council, he had told reporters that hints that Iraq is rebuilding at several sites are "not the same as saying there are weapons of mass destruction."

But Blix, the executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, said key, troubling questions remain unanswered about Iraq's weapons programs, such as whether entire stockpiles of anthrax have been destroyed, as the country had claimed.

Such questions could be answered within a year, if Iraq allowed inspectors to return and cooperated with their work, he said.

"We are not going to drag our feet," said the 74-year-old Swede, vowing that at least an initial team of inspectors could be on the ground within weeks.

Whether that timetable would suit the Bush administration re mains unclear. In a speech to the UN General Assembly tomorrow, President Bush is widely expected to lay out his case for an attack on Iraq. There has been considerable speculation here that either the United States or Britain will ask the Security Council for a new, stronger resolution that would call on Iraq to readmit inspectors or face military action.

But Bush, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is going to want immediate results from any UN team dispatched.

"We cannot waste time, " one US official, who asked not to be identified, said at the UN yesterday. "Time is not on our side. We strongly feel inspectors should get in and verify whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction as quickly as possible."

The current Security Council resolution ties the lifting of UN sanctions to inspectors certifying that Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons have been destroyed, along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. It also calls for inspectors to have free access to suspected weapons sites.

But should inspectors return under that mandate, the Bush administration could find itself clashing with the UN, particularly over issues such as whether Iraq is being cooperative.

In the end, that is Blix's determination. "It is my task to interpret if they are noncooperative or not," he said. "You have to interpret events with a sense of reasonableness and proportion."

For months, the Bush administration has been outspoken in its allegations that Hussein has worked to reacquire weapons of mass destruction after 1998, when UN inspectors left in advance of a US-led bombing raid. Iraq has not allowed them to return.

In recent weeks, top US officials have accused Hussein of being intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. But the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, which tracks nuclear developments in Iraq, has said there is no evidence yet to that effect.

The Vienna-based agency, responding to a report in The New York Times, said in a statement this week that it has "no new information on Iraq's nuclear program since December 1998 when its inspectors left Iraq."

Blix said, "As of 1998, the nuclear dossier was the one that had the fewest question marks. The one with the largest question mark was the biological dossier."

The UN weapons inspection commission, created after the demise of the last UN inspection team, has yet to visit Iraq since its creation in December 1999. But Blix said his team has spent the time studying some 35,000 images taken from satellite cameras, and computerizing the reams of evidence gathered by past inspectors.

Blix's inspectors would rely on that evidence, as well as defectors' reports and intelligence from capitals around the world, to narrow their search for possible weapons of mass destruction. The team already has a list of 700 sites it would want to search, although not all those would receive top priority, Blix said.

"We are not assuming there are weapons of mass destruction," Blix said. "At the same time, it would be naive of me to exclude that."

Elizabeth Neuffer, United Nations
Published in the Boston Globe © 2002 Globe Newspaper Company

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