BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq is incapable of producing weapons of mass destruction and should prove it by allowing in U.N. weapons inspectors, an American who was once on the inspections teams said Sunday.
With his comments during a visit to Baghdad, Scott Ritter -- who has been a sharp critic of U.S. policy on Iraq -- joined a long list of officials from European and Arab nations who have urged Iraq to accept inspectors to defuse a crisis with the United States.
Iraqi cooperation on inspections would leave the United States "standing alone in regards to war threats on Iraq and this is the best way to prevent the war," said Ritter.
Ritter, a former U.S. Marine intelligence officer, spoke to members of parliament and to journalists on his third trip to Iraq since he resigned from the U.N. inspection team in 1998. As in the past, his trip was organized by the Iraqi government. The rest of his schedule was not yet public.
"The truth is Iraq is not a threat to its neighbors and it is not acting in a manner which threatens anyone outside its borders," Ritter said. "Military action against Iraq cannot be justified."
Secretary of State Colin Powell disputed Ritter's comments on Fox News Sunday, saying the remarks had came from "somebody who's not in the intelligence chain any longer."
"Why don't they [the Iraqis] say any time, any place, anywhere, bring them [the inspectors] in, everybody come in, we are clean?" Powell said. "The reason is, they're not clean. And we have to find out what they have and what we're going to do about it."
Iraq, while denying it has banned weapons, has offered only to continue dialogue with the United Nations about the return of inspectors. It has not responded to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's demand that inspectors be allowed to return unconditionally as a first step to further talks.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting Saturday, insisted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and represents a threat that must be dealt with. The Bush administration is considering how to remove Saddam.
Other members of the U.N. teams that investigated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction from 1991 to 1998 have told The Associated Press that Iraq probably possesses large stockpiles of nerve agents, mustard gas and anthrax. They add that while the country does not have a nuclear bomb, it has the designs, equipment and expertise to build one quickly if it were able to get enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.
A U.S. intelligence official said Saturday that Iraq has recently stepped up attempts to import industrial equipment that could be used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
Several equipment shipments destined for Iraq have been stopped in recent months, the official said, declining to say by whom or where. It is unclear whether any shipments got through. U.S. intelligence officials, however, do not believe Iraq has obtained any enriched uranium or plutonium.
Many former inspectors say Iraq's arsenal is not much of a threat because Saddam has been deterred so far by fear of U.S. retaliation and apparently has been reluctant to share his weapons with terrorists.
Ritter resigned from the U.N. inspection team in August 1998 after several years as a member. He left denouncing the Clinton administration for having withdrawn support for the U.N. agency and undermining weapons inspections.
He has since said Washington used the inspectors to spy on Iraq -- a longtime charge by Baghdad -- and manipulated the United Nations to provoke a confrontation with Saddam as a pretext for U.S. airstrikes on Iraq.
Months after Ritter's resignation, U.N. inspectors complaining of lack of cooperation from Iraq left the country ahead of U.S.-British strikes and they have been barred from returning since then.