BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.N. weapons inspectors on Tuesday made their first unannounced visit to one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces in an early test of new powers to inspect for weapons of mass destruction anywhere, anytime.
When the speeding U.N. convoy rolled up to the gates of the Al-Sajoud palace west of Baghdad on the sixth day of inspections, guards scrambled and radioed for instructions.
But they seemed well prepared for an eventual visit by the inspectors, opening the huge gates and allowing the half-dozen U.N. vehicles inside with minimal delay.
Just a couple of minutes later, Saddam's presidential secretary, Abid Hamoud, arrived in a four-wheel drive vehicle and entered the sprawling grounds by the Tigris River.
Far beyond the tall ornate gates, a massive dome-topped building loomed in the morning haze. Such palaces, many of them new, house both living quarters and offices.
Access to Saddam's many presidential sites was an explosive issue in the previous round of inspections in the 1990s. The Iraqis sought to bar those U.N. inspectors and it required personal negotiations between U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Saddam to reach an accommodation: Inspectors could visit with diplomatic escort and advance notice.
The international teams later inspected such presidential sites, finding nothing.
A new Security Council resolution adopted last month superseded such arrangements, mandating unrestricted free, unannounced access to all Iraqi sites.
On Monday, inspectors searched the Karama ballistic design plant, and conducted their longest search yet, looking for signs of outlawed Iraqi missiles.
After six hours in the well-guarded Baghdad compound, they departed, and the plant's deputy director said all went well. "They didn't find anything," Brig. Mohammed Salah told reporters.
The inspectors, as usual, had no immediate comment for waiting journalists. But a U.N. report later Monday said some equipment of interest at Karama was missing. The Iraqis said some of the missing equipment had been destroyed in U.S. air attacks and some had been transferred.
It was the fifth day of renewed arms inspections after a four-year break. Until Monday, the longest inspections had been running about four hours, some much shorter.
The inspections come under a new U.N. Security Council mandate requiring Iraq to shut down any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs as well as any facilities to build missiles with more than the 90-mile range allowed under U.N. resolutions after the 1991 Gulf War.
A second U.N. team, of nuclear inspectors, visited industrial sites north of Baghdad on Monday.
Inspectors in the 1990s eliminated tons of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and the equipment to make them, dismantled Iraq's effort to build nuclear bombs, and destroyed scores of longer-range Iraqi missiles. Those inspectors didn't believe they found all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, however.
President Bush threatens to wage war on Iraq — with or without U.N. sanction — if it doesn't disarm. Bush indicated Monday he wasn't impressed with Iraq's cooperation thus far, saying inspectors don't have the duty or ability to uncover weapons of mass destruction hidden in the vast country, but that Iraq has a responsibility to provide evidence of total disarmament.
"So far, the signs are not encouraging," Bush said in a toughly worded speech at the Pentagon.
Other governments say that only the Security Council can authorize such an attack on Iraq, in a situation not involving immediate self-defense. The presidents of Russia and China, two of those governments, issued a statement Monday calling for a peaceful resolution of the U.S.-Iraqi showdown.
In London, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the United States wants to disarm Iraq without war but that the threat of force is vital to ensure that Saddam's regime realizes its survival is at stake.
The showdown between Iraq and the United States and its allies flared again Monday. The U.S. military said its warplanes bombed an air-defense site in northern Iraq after being fired upon by Iraqi forces while patrolling the "no-fly zone" Washington has declared in the area. Iraqi officials later said "civil and service installations" had been hit; they did not mention casualties.
The military-run Karama General Co. complex, hidden behind 9-foot-high walls in Baghdad's Waziriya district, has long been known as a nerve center for Iraq's missile development programs. In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, area residents said, a missile fired from Iran landed squarely in the compound. In December 1998, over a few days, the U.S. military fired 18 cruise missiles into Karama.
In their wrap-up report, the earlier U.N. inspectors said Karama had been converted by 1998 to work on missiles of 90-mile range or less — the U.N.-imposed limit. They had not destroyed any equipment, they said, but the site was put under continuous camera surveillance.
When the inspectors were withdrawn in December 1998, the United States and Britain launched air strikes against Karama and other Iraqi targets. Evidence of that devastation, tons of debris, still lies in a heap at Karama, which continues operations.
Recent U.S. and British intelligence reports say the Iraqis have probably reconstructed a dozen or more al-Husseins from odd parts. The reports also contend Iraq is working on new missiles with even longer range, and is extending the range of its new al-Samoud missile — a Karama project — beyond the approved limit.
Seeking evidence of such work, the dozen or so inspectors pored through reams of documents and computer files at Karama, and questioned staff about their activities, deputy director Salah said. "There were no problems," he said. "This site operates under the mandate of U.N. resolutions" — meaning missiles of under 90-mile range.
A statement later Monday from the U.N. inspection agency said some Karama equipment tagged for monitoring by inspectors in the 1990s — but not otherwise described — was not found at the site. The staff said the bombing destroyed some, and some was transferred to other sites, the statement said.
In previous such instances, inspectors later traced transferred equipment to new sites.
The nuclear inspectors, meanwhile, visited three plants that produce alcoholic products, where they may have been interested in equipment that could be diverted to uses in the nuclear field. The U.N. statement said the plants "proved to be dedicated to the production of alcohol."
If Iraq is eventually found to have cooperated fully with the inspectors, U.N. resolutions call for the Security Council to consider lifting economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.