Iraqi leaders complied with a key United Nations demand Saturday by providing a list of over 500 scientists involved in its nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs to weapons inspectors.
U.N. officials hope the list will allow investigators to learn more about possible weapons of mass destruction being developed in Iraq.
In the tough new sanctions regime, U.N. inspectors are permitted to speak to Iraqi scientists in private — an option the United States hopes will prompt scientists to reveal hidden arms programs.
Inspectors have interviewed two key scientists so far, both in the past week. They refused, however, to talk alone with U.N. officials.
"We have received from the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate a list of names of personnel associated with Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic missile programs," Hiro Ueki, the spokesman for the U.N. office in Baghdad, told reporters Saturday. More than 500 names were on the list, he said.
The list hand-over marks Baghdad's latest show of cooperation with new weapons inspections. While strenuously denying it possesses weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has so far complied with most Security Council requirements, including allowing the initial return of inspectors, giving access to sites the experts want to search and delivering its Dec. 7 declaration on the state of its weapons programs.
If Iraq convinces inspectors it is not hiding weapons of mass destruction, it could avoid a U.S. strike. U.N. Inspectors, however, have said Iraq's weapons declaration is incomplete, and the United States has dismissed it as a lie.
Security Council Resolution 1441 allows inspectors to take willing scientists out of Iraq to interview them. Iraqi officials have said they don't believe this is necessary but will allow it, provided a scientist consents.
Since arriving in Baghdad on Nov. 27, inspectors have been speaking to engineers and experts at sites they have searched.
Both scientists were interviewed with Iraqi officials in attendance and about Iraq's suspected nuclear program.
One of the scientists, metallurgist Kazem Mojbal, on Saturday rejected a U.N. account of his interview and denied assertions that he had been involved in a nuclear program.
On Friday, Ueki, the U.N. spokesman, said Mojbal had given U.N. officials details about an unidentified Iraqi military program that "has attracted considerable attention as a possible prelude to a clandestine nuclear program."
But on Saturday, Ueki clarified the statement, saying the United Nations knew that Mojbal was not involved in Iraq's past nuclear program and that he had not made a judgment about Iraq having a clandestine nuclear program.
Thousands of U.S. troops, two aircraft carrier battle groups and scores of combat aircraft have received orders since Christmas to ready themselves to head to the Gulf region in January and February, American defense officials said Friday. Military personnel will go to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, among other locations.
The Iraqi government scoffed Saturday at the plans to deploy. "The beating of war drums, the noise of weapons, the sending of warships, the mobilizing of armies will neither frighten nor terrorize the Iraqis," the official Iraqi army newspaper, Al-Qadissiya, said in an editorial.
In neighboring Jordan, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said a U.S. military strike on Iraq is highly probable after chief weapons inspector Hans Blix gives his expected Jan. 27 report to the Security Council on Baghdad's compliance with the U.N. resolution.
"The chances of a strike on Iraq are very big," Muasher told reporters, adding that if Blix says Iraq has failed to cooperate, "the United States can launch a war, even though it will not be under the umbrella of the United Nations."
Muasher said Jordan will not allow its territory to be used in an attack on Iraq, and said Jordanian officials were seeking to avert war through diplomacy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.