BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.N. inspectors searching for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are really U.S. and Israeli spies, Iraq's vice president said Wednesday.
In language reminiscent of clashes with inspectors in the 1990s — Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said the new teams of U.N. monitors are gathering intelligence for hostile powers.
"Their work is to spy to serve the CIA and Mossad," Israel's intelligence service, Ramadan claimed to a visiting delegation of Egyptian professionals.
Ramadan, known for his fiery statements, claimed to his all-Arab audience that the inspectors went to the palace hoping to provoke the Iraqis into refusing them entrance — something he said would be interpreted as a "material breach" of the U.N. resolution that mandated the inspections, and a cause for war.
The resolution includes "several land mines," Ramadan said, "and the aim is that one of them will go off."
The inspectors denied Ramadan's claims they were spying. "Clearly we are there to work for the Security Council. We are not there to work for member states," Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, said in New York.
Blix "has made it clear to the Iraqis and also publicly that if he finds anybody working for governments then he would immediately fire them," Buchanan said.
Responding to Iraqi protests over Tuesday's palace visit, a U.N. official insisted the inspectors are taking the right approach — navigating between Iraqi complaints and U.S. pressure for more "severe" inspections. And, said inspections team leader Demetrius Perricos, "we are getting results."
Among other things, Perricos reported that on a five-hour inspection of a desert installation his experts secured a dozen Iraqi artillery shells — previously known to be there — that were loaded with a powerful chemical weapon, the agent for mustard gas. It was the first report of such armaments traced and controlled in the week-old round of new inspections.
The inspections resumed last week after a four-year suspension, under a new U.N. Security Council resolution requiring Iraq to surrender any remaining weapons of mass destruction and shut down any programs to make them.
A critical deadline approaches this weekend for the Baghdad government. On Saturday, a day ahead of the deadline, it is expected to submit a declaration to the United Nations on any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as on nuclear, chemical and biological programs it says are peaceful.
The Bush administration alleges Baghdad retains some chemical and biological weapons— missed during 1990s inspections — and has not abandoned plans for nuclear weapons. Washington threatens to go to war against Iraq if, in the U.S. view, it does not cooperate in the disarmament effort.
The Iraqi government maintains it no longer holds such weapons, and will say so in the declaration.
The inspectors' new mandate toughens their powers to search anywhere, anytime in Iraq for signs of prohibited armaments. They took advantage of that authority on Tuesday to demand and receive quick entry to the opulent al-Sajoud palace, beside the Tigris River in Baghdad, one of dozens of palaces built by Saddam during his 23-year rule.
The team's 1-hour inspection was a brief but symbolic show of U.N. muscle.
"We consider the entry of the presidential sites as unjustified and really unnecessary," Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, chief Iraqi liaison to the inspectors, told reporters Wednesday. A Foreign Ministry statement described it as "bad behavior." Amin added, however, that Iraq would not try to block U.N. visits to other palaces.
Disputes over inspections of presidential palaces contributed to tensions that developed between U.N. inspectors and the Iraqi government in the 1990s. Personal negotiations between Saddam and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced an agreement whereby inspectors had to supply notice of such inspections and accept diplomatic escorts.
Perricos, meeting with reporters Wednesday, noted that the new Security Council resolution overrides such agreements.
Bush had said Tuesday that "the signs are not encouraging" the Iraqis will cooperate with the disarmament effort, even though the inspectors have reported nothing but Iraqi cooperation thus far.
The U.N. teams are picking up where their predecessors left off in 1998, when the monitoring regime collapsed amid disputes over access and U.S. spying from within the U.N. operation.
The inspectors of the 1990s eliminated tons of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and the equipment to make them, and dismantled Iraq's program to build nuclear bombs.
Perricos' team and another paid unannounced visits to that key site and to the nerve center of Iraq's old nuclear weapons program, places that were bombed, searched and dismantled in the 1990s. The 2002 inspectors wanted to ensure that Baghdad's plans for ultimate weapons have not been revived.
The desolate al-Muthanna State Establishment, among camel herds and wild dogs in the desert 40 miles northwest of Baghdad, was Iraq's most important chemical weapons research and production facility in the 1980s, and was heavily bombed in the 1991 Gulf War.
Later in the 1990s, the U.N. inspectors moved into the site and destroyed huge amounts of material: 38,500 artillery shells and other chemical-filled weapons, almost 500,000 gallons of liquid material, and 150 pieces of equipment used to make chemical agents, according to a recent Iraqi report.
Allowed onto the 10-square-mile installation after the inspectors left, journalists saw the 1990s inspectors' handiwork, in storage sheds with huge industrial vats and crumpled empty bomb casings strewn about — remnants of an enterprise that made some of the most feared chemical weapons, including sarin and VX nerve agent.
The discarded equipment was inventoried and tagged by the old monitors, and the new team wanted to check that no machinery had been put back into service.
"They found things as they were in 1998, and there's no activity now at this site," Raad Manhal, Iraqi liaison officer at the site, told reporters.
Perricos later said the arms experts had located "between 10 and 20" artillery shells, loaded with the chemical weapons agent mustard, which had been recorded at the site but had not been destroyed because of the abrupt collapse of inspections in 1998. His team secured the shells in their storage place and planned to destroy them, he said.
The second team went to al-Tuwaitha, long the heart of Iraqi nuclear research, where scientists and engineers in the 1980s worked on technology to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
Al-Tuwaitha, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, also was heavily bombed and later monitored in the 1990s. Recent satellite photos show new construction at the sprawling complex, however, and the nuclear specialists wanted to check those buildings. After the visit, nuclear team leader Jacques Baute would say only he was satisfied with Iraqi cooperation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.