BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein continued to insist Monday that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. Now he has to hope that his scientists will back him up -- even if they are free from the dictator's control.
Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a televised interview Monday that his agents have begun interviewing Iraqi scientists who have "critical information" on Iraq's weapons programs.
ElBaradei said U.N. inspectors are prepared to take the scientists and their family members out of Iraq to ensure that they are free from reprisal.
"We are now I think in the process of interviewing people inside Iraq in private ... but we are also working on the practical arrangements to take people out of Iraq," ElBaradei said, according to Reuters.
As ElBaradei spoke, U.N. weapons inspectors revisited a rebuilt plant that Iraq insisted was a baby milk factory when the bombed-out hulk was shown to reporters during the Gulf War. That led to allegations at the time that Iraq was trying to manipulate the media.
Iraq said Monday that the plant is again producing milk. The factory's current director said the inspectors had asked about raw materials and about the production process.
Inspectors also revisited a military industrial facility where they were delayed briefly last week in their efforts to enter a guest house.
Saddam, meanwhile, continued to insist that Iraq is hiding no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, though U.N. inspectors have called its arms declaration wanting and American and British officials have called it a lie.
"We have told the world we are not producing these kind of weapons, but it seems that the world is drugged, absent or in a weak position," the Iraqi president said Sunday during talks with visiting Belarus envoy Nikolai Ivanchenko.
Saddam's scientific adviser Amir al-Saadi told reporters in Baghdad Sunday that Iraq had answered many of the questions about its weapons program in a declaration to the United Nations earlier this month or in interviews officials have given U.N. inspectors who have been working here since last month.
Al-Saadi accused the United States and Britain of ignoring Iraq's replies and making judgments before U.N. experts could fully examine the Iraqi declaration.
"Why don't they let the specialized organs of the United Nations get on with their task?" al-Saadi asked at a televised news conference.
"We don't even have an objection if the CIA itself comes and joins the inspection teams to show them the places which they claim have something," he said.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has said the Iraqi weapons declaration earlier this month leaves so many unanswered questions that it is impossible to confirm the accuracy of Iraq's claim to have no weapons of mass destruction. Blix has asked the United States and Britain to share intelligence to help inspectors determine the truth.
President Bush, pointing to what U.S. officials call fabrications and omissions in the declaration, already has declared Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. demands but has decided to hold off any military response for at least a month as the Americans seek to build U.N. support for attacking Saddam.
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said on condition of anonymity Sunday that the United States is in "watch and wait" mode this week.
"Iraq's actions to date suggest they have not made the strategic choice to disarm," the official said. "While we have not given up on disarming Iraq through the United Nations, we are now entering a final phase in how we compel Saddam Hussein to disarm."
Babil, the Iraqi newspaper run by Saddam's son Odai, said in a front-page editorial Monday that the United States was a "terrorist country" that wanted to attack Iraq as part of a plot to control the region.
On the streets, Iraqis expected war.
"Of course I'm afraid," said a 35-year-old woman shopping Sunday in Baghdad who gave only her first name, Solafa. "Most people don't know what is going on, the media are keeping people in a coma. TV doesn't broadcast the latest news, some people don't even know that there are inspectors in the country."
U.N. experts have made almost daily inspections since resuming work in Iraq last month, working there for the first time since teams left in 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes launched to punish Baghdad for alleged failure to cooperate.
Sites visited Monday included a military industrial facility at Al Fao. Last week at Al Fao, inspectors were briefly delayed getting into a guest house at the complex while officials there, apparently taken by surprise, sought permission to let them enter.
A year ago, an Iraqi engineer who said he defected after having been arrested inside the country reported working for the Iraqi government's Military Industrialization Organization and an affiliated company, Al Fao.
In an interview with The New York Times, conducted in December 2001 in Thailand, the engineer said his work involved repairing secret storage facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Sites visited Sunday included the Al Battanee Center -- a facility involved in space research and development -- in Baghdad, which U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said helped manufacture the guidance and control system for the new al-Samoud missile.
U.S. and British intelligence reports contend Iraq is extending the al-Samoud's range beyond permitted limits.
Inspectors also visited the al-Kindi Co., which the final report of U.N . weapons inspectors who worked in Iraq in the 1990s identified as being involved in Iraq's biological weapons programs.
The U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission under Blix is searching for evidence of chemical or biological weapons and the means to deliver them. Mohamed ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency, also a U.N. body, is searching for banned nuclear weapons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.