WASHINGTON – U.S. weapons experts are taking an accelerated but thorough look at Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration with the aim of providing the chief United Nations inspector with an assessment by Friday.
The four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, China and Russia — received copies of the declaration from the United States and are also putting it under close scrutiny.
The chief U.N. inspector, Hans Blix, asked for preliminary assessments by Friday, but that may be difficult for China and Russia to do since the declaration was being sent to Beijing and Moscow for top officials there to study and appraise.
Bush administration officials said much of the material Iraq turned over last weekend appeared to be recycled versions of earlier documents, including accounts of a nuclear weapons program President Saddam Hussein undertook a decade ago.
The officials suggested it could take weeks to evaluate all of the contents. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. experts had reached "just a starting point."
"This process will be thoughtful, it will be deliberative and it will be careful — careful to make certain that we thoroughly and completely understand what it is that Iraq is purporting to declare, as well as what they have failed to declare in this rather large document," Fleischer said.
Iraq has insisted it has no weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials want to check those assertions and the material in the declaration against their own information on Iraq's weapons buildup. Bush has threatened war if Saddam does not disarm any programs or existing weapons of mass destruction.
The document also could provide important information on companies and countries that provided weapons technology and hardware to Iraq, potentially embarrassing some U.S. allies.
President Bush will be briefed on what is contained in the declaration but the inquiry is "still in very preliminary stages," the spokesman said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will be briefed, as well.
The document was copied and broken up to be evaluated in sections by specialists gathered according to their areas of expertise.
Most of the work was being done at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., but some evaluation was under way elsewhere in the Washington area, officials said.
The 10 other members of the Security Council will be given their copies next week, after Blix and other U.N. officials remove some of the sensitive material, a U.S. official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
Syria objected strenuously to the arrangement, insisting it should have access to the original declaration, including sensitive information.
Powell denounced Saddam, asserting in a French television interview, "He's a liar."
"We'll see now whether he decides that the cost of lying is too great. The cost of lying now might result in his regime being destroyed by the armed forces of the international community," he said during a Dec. 5 interview with France 2, a state-run station. The State Department released the transcript Tuesday.
Powell said war can be avoided if Saddam cooperated with the United Nations.
But he predicted that many nations would be willing to join the United States in taking up arms against Iraq if the U.N. Security Council decides not to do so.
A top Powell aide, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, consulted on Iraq with leaders of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government accused Washington on Tuesday of taking control of a U.N. master copy of Baghdad's arms declaration in order to tamper with it and create a pretext for war.
Bush administration officials did not respond, suggesting the assertion was not worthy of a reply.