U.N. weapons inspectors put Iraq on notice that it must provide far more evidence about its weapons of mass destruction. But neither the inspectors nor other Security Council members joined the United States in declaring that Iraq has violated U.N. resolutions and is running out of time to avert a war.
Britain, France and the United States supported the inspectors' initial assessment Thursday that Iraq's 12,200-page weapons declaration was short on new information, left many questions unanswered, and contained inconsistencies and contradictions.
But the Bush administration stood alone in its conclusion that gaps in the declaration constitute a "material breach" of U.N. resolutions on Iraq's disarmament — a diplomatically charged phrase widely interpreted as a prelude to war.
Instead, the inspectors said they will seek more information from Baghdad on outstanding issues including its production of anthrax, continue with inspections which resumed last month after four years, and try to interview Iraqi scientists.
Their disappointment, however, was clear.
"An opportunity was missed in the declaration to give a lot of evidence," chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said after briefing the Security Council. "They can still provide it and I hope they provide it to us orally, but it would have been better if it had been in the declaration."
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said inspectors will go back to the Iraqis with a lot of questions.
"We will expect that we will get answers and hopefully additional evidence," he said.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell told a news conference in Washington that the Bush administration wasn't going to wait long for answers.
If Iraq's "deception" continues in the weeks ahead, Powell warned, "then we're not going to find a peaceful solution to this problem."
Iraq's deputy U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Salmane dismissed the U.S. charges, calling the Iraqi declaration "complete and comprehensive" and saying it could be verified by inspectors.
"The U.S. has made it clear that the issue is not disarmament but to change the legitimate government of Iraq," he said.
Baghdad claims it has no nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or long-range missiles to deliver them. The United States and Britain say they have evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction programs. But inspectors say neither side has provided them with sufficient evidence — so they can't confirm or disprove Iraq's claims.
The Bush administration's current strategy is to increase pressure on inspectors to seek interviews with Iraqi weapons scientists outside of Iraq to gain new intelligence.
President Bush believes Saddam will resist such demands, giving the United States a stronger case for "material breach," U.S. officials said in Washington.
On the other hand, if Iraq surprises Bush and turns over the scientists, U.S. officials believe they would provide evidence that could be used against Saddam, the officials said.
Security Council Resolution 1441 states that false statements or omissions in Iraq's declaration — coupled with Saddam's failure to cooperate with inspections — will constitute a new "material breach" that will be reported to the Security Council for assessment.
The council asked the inspectors to give them an updated report in January, when they are to assess Iraq's cooperation. U.S. officials say Bush will use their findings to decide whether to go to war.
In his initial assessment, Blix noted inconsistencies in Iraq's biological declaration and an apparent contradiction in its report on the production and destruction of anthrax from 1988-1991.
Iraq also didn't provide sufficient information about 50 conventional warheads it claims were destroyed but haven't been recovered, 550 mustard gas shells declared lost after the 1991 Gulf War, production of the deadly VX nerve agent, and its unilateral destruction of biological warfare agents, he said.
ElBaradei said the nuclear report didn't provide previously requested clarifications on weapons design and development. But the key outstanding issue is the accuracy of Iraq's declaration that its nuclear activities have been limited to the legal use of radioactive elements, he said.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said the initial assessment showed the need to support the inspectors so "the international community will be able to verify whether weapons of mass destruction programs are still going on in Iraq."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, Iraq's most important council ally, indirectly criticized the United States for not providing inspectors with evidence of Iraq's weapons programs and for unilaterally declaring Iraq in material breach.
"It is not up to individual members to make this judgment" of material breach, he said.