VIENNA, Austria – Satellite imagery shows unexplained construction at several sites of interest to U.N. inspectors seeking entry to Iraq to look for evidence that Baghdad is developing nuclear weapons, the inspection team's leader said Friday.
The last U.N. inspectors pulled out of Iraq in December 1998, ahead of bombing by the United States and Britain. Baghdad has refused to let U.N. teams looking for nuclear or other prohibited weapons programs to return, but monitoring has continued through satellite photography and other intelligence gathering.
French physicist Jacques Baute, the leader of the U.N. nuclear inspection team, said in a telephone interview that reviews of commercial satellite images since 1999 show "some buildings that have been reconstructed ... and some new buildings [that] have been erected," at sites his team had visited in the past.
Without identifying them, Baute, based at the International Atomic Energy Organization in Vienna, described the sites as having potential "dual-use capabilities," meaning they could potentially be locations for both civilian and military nuclear programs. He did not further specify what sort of facilities his team viewed from the photos.
Baute said his team was ready to resume inspections weeks after Iraqi authorities gave permission for renewed onsite U.N. monitoring. U.N. sanctions on Iraq, imposed for its invasion of Kuwait, could be lifted within 12 months after the inspectors go in, should they find no evidence of illegal weapons programs, he said.
The United States has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs and of supporting terrorism, and has called for the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The Bush administration is trying to line up international support for a military strike on Iraq.
Facing opposition from traditional allies, Bush has scheduled consultations with heads of countries sitting on the U.N. Security Council too learn whether new U.N. pressure can be brought that would force Baghdad to again allow the return of weapons inspectors.
President Bush was scheduled to meet Saturday with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the only major U.S. ally supporting Saddam's ouster through military means.
The administration is likely to ask the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution setting a deadline for Iraq to admit weapons inspectors or to risk punitive action.
In a report made available to The Associated Press Friday, Hans Blix, chief inspector of the team assigned to look for chemical and biological weapons, said Iraq has not been reporting its "dual-use" imports — which can be used in peaceful and military nuclear programs — to the United Nations.