BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq are spies, Saddam Hussein told his people Monday in a televised speech.
Instead of searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi president said, the arms monitors were interested in collecting names of Iraqi scientists, putting questions to them that indicate "hidden agendas" and gathering information about military facilities.
"All or most" of such activities "constitute purely intelligence work," Saddam said in his speech marking Iraq's Army Day.
In Vienna, Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which carries out nuclear inspections, denied the charges.
"We certainly flatly reject any accusation that we work for any government or provide direct information to any single government," Fleming said Monday.
If the inspectors were gathering intelligence, she said, "it's intelligence for the United Nations."
Under a Security Council resolution passed in November, weapons inspectors are in the country to establish whether Iraq still has chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or the means to deliver them. Iraq has denied it has such weapons, but the United States and Britain have accused it of hiding banned arms.
In 1998, a previous U.N. monitoring system collapsed amid disputes between Iraq and the United Nations over alleged U.S. spying from within the U.N. operation and inspectors' access to sensitive sites. The monitors withdrew, not to return for four years.
President Bush and other U.S. officials have threatened to attack Iraq and topple Saddam's regime if it does not eliminate all weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. resolutions adopted after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Monday said that war with Iraq had become less likely. But he wouldn't say why he thought the chances of war had diminished.
"I've repeated that war is not inevitable and that the preference of the international community is for [the situation] to be resolved peacefully," Straw said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
In his speech, Saddam accused the United States of trying to push the U.N. inspectors to go beyond the declared objective of the Security Council, specifically mentioning American efforts to persuade the inspection teams to be more aggressive about questioning Iraqi scientists about the country's arms programs.
Saddam did not say whether his suspicions about the inspectors would lead Iraq to stop cooperating with them. Other Iraqi officials have expressed concerns about the manner in which the inspectors were carrying out their work, but said Iraq would continue to cooperate to prove it has no banned weapons and to avoid war.
In early December, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan accused the new inspectors of gathering intelligence for Washington and Israel, saying "their work is to spy to serve the CIA and Mossad."
Ramadan's accusations followed a surprise search of one of Saddam's palaces, and were quickly denied by Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for chief inspector Hans Blix. Buchanan said Blix has made clear that anyone found working for individual governments rather than the U.N. Security Council would be fired.
On Monday, U.N. experts continued inspections as usual in Iraq. A day earlier, they blocked off a huge complex on the edge of Baghdad while visiting a facility inside.
Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed al-Douri, who by chance was among an angry crowd of men, women and children kept from leaving the area during the inspection, said it was "unacceptable" for the inspectors to restrict ordinary Iraqis' freedom of movement while they worked.
The "freezing" of facilities during inspections has become routine, but never before have so many people been affected.
In his speech, Saddam declared his people and his army would prevail if attacked by the United States because truth and justice were on their side.
"We are in our country and whoever is in his own homeland ... and is forced to face an enemy that stands on the side of falsehood and comes as an aggressor from beyond seas and oceans will no doubt emerge triumphant," he said in the taped, televised speech.
Saddam opened the way for a peaceful solution to the crisis, saying "we shall thank the almighty if he guides the enemies to the right path." But he added he also would be grateful if God "destroys them [the enemies] and brings shame to their arrogance."
He said he knew his military would stand by its oath to protect the nation — perhaps an answer to some military experts outside the country who have theorized the Iraqi army could collapse if attacked by a far stronger U.S. force.
The Iraqi army collapsed quickly under the onslaught of a U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam to retreat from Kuwait.
"We are confident ... that you will be with every dawn for a new day, better and better until you attain the best state ... to the disappointment of your desperate enemies, the friends and wicked assistants of Satan, the inhabitants of night and the dark," Saddam said. "Their arrows will go astray while your arrows will hit them."
The Iraqi leader also sought to appeal to other Arabs by raising the Palestinian question, saying the United States was trying to divert attention from "the heinous crimes perpetrate by the Zionist entity [Israel] against our people in Palestine."
Saddam also said talk of war in Washington was designed to distract the American people from the their country's problems, "the weakness of its [security] agencies" that led to the Sept. 11 attacks and "the weakness, or indeed near collapse, of the United States economy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.