CAIRO, Egypt – A senior Iraqi official said Monday there is no need for U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad and branded as a "lie" allegations that Saddam Hussein still has weapons of mass destruction.
In response to the comments by the Iraqi information minister, the U.S. State Department said Baghdad was refusing to give a straight answer on resuming inspections after nearly four years.
"They refuse to face up to their obligations and obfuscate and look for ways to move the goal posts when it's a simple situation," spokesman Philip Reeker said.
"The issue is not inspections but verified disarmament," he said. "Iraq needs to disarm."
Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, said President Bush was lying about the country's alleged weapons programs to drum up support for his Iraq policy, which calls for Saddam's ouster as a threat to the Mideast.
Bush "knows that he is standing in quicksand when it comes to his baseless talk on Iraq," al-Sahhaf told the Arabic satellite television Al-Jazeera.
Al-Sahhaf also said Iraqi opposition leaders who met with key American officials in Washington last week were "bats ... and a bad American product." He called American courting of the opposition figures "a stupid game that reflects their (U.S.) bankruptcy."
His remarks came as many countries -- including some U.S. allies -- have expressed opposition to the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq and as Baghdad has opened a campaign portraying itself as the victim of false U.S. propaganda.
Al-Sahhaf said the U.N. work concerning alleged Iraqi weapons programs was completed. "They claim something remains. This talk can be responded to and disproved," al-Sahhaf said in the interview -- conducted in Iraq and monitored in Cairo.
"This is a lie. This is an American stance," he said of Washington's insistence Iraq still possesses or seeks to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
"Inspections have finished in Iraq," he declared.
A report by the U.N. inspection agency issued in January 1999 -- a month after inspectors were withdrawn -- mentioned priority issues that Iraq had not satisfactorily resolved. Those included its development of VX, a deadly chemical weapons nerve agent; its missile production capabilities; and many remaining question marks about its biological weapons program.
Despite intense discussions within the Bush administration about preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq, the president said Saturday that he had no "imminent war plan" but that Saddam remains "an enemy until proven otherwise."
It was not clear from al-Sahhaf's remarks whether Iraq was shutting the inspectors out for good. Baghdad has been sending mixed signals on whether it will act on its recent invitation to U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to meetings in Iraq to determine how to resolve outstanding disarmament issues.
The inspectors' return is a key demand of the U.N. Security Council, and especially of the United States.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said there would be no comment on al-Sahhaf's remarks. He said Secretary-General Kofi Annan had sent an Aug. 6 letter to Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri "and we're still awaiting an official reply to that letter."
Annan's letter told Iraq it must accept the Security Council roadmap for the return of weapons inspectors. Sabri's Aug. 1 invitation to Blix outlined a proposal for talks that was at odds with the council's blueprint.
Later Monday, Sabri told reporters at Saddam International Airport that Baghdad was preparing a reply to Annan's letter. He commented after greeting a top PLO official, Farouk Kaddoumi, who arrived in Iraq for talks.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War, cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 in advance of U.S. and British airstrikes, and Baghdad has barred them from returning.
Baghdad has been insisting the Security Council reply to 19 political and technical questions it posed in March. Annan said last week that Iraq has not shown any flexibility.
Annan and Security Council members insist that Iraq follow a 1999 council resolution requiring inspectors to visit Iraq and then determine within 60 days what arms questions Iraq still must answer.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials on Sunday took journalists on a tour of a Baghdad site said to be a suspected biological weapons production facility. The officials maintain it was a livestock vaccination laboratory.
Iraq said civil engineer Adnan Saeed al-Haidari, who once worked with a military industrial company in Baghdad and later fled the country, made false claims about the alleged weapons site to the CIA.
A sign at the entrance to the laboratory, which Iraqi officials say was closed by U.N. inspectors in 1996, reads "General Establishment for Animal Development."
Inside, bottles and tubes were scattered on the floor and equipment appeared broken and dusty. Monitoring cameras said to have been installed by the U.N. inspectors were still mounted on the walls, though not functioning since the inspectors left.
Iraq claims the site was dismantled and wrecked by U.N. weapons inspectors before they left.