BADHDAD, Iraq – U.N. arms experts took to the air Tuesday in their search for evidence of banned weapons, using helicopters for the first time as they began their seventh week in Iraq.
It was the second step in recent days aimed at enhancing the inspectors' mission to determine whether Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction or programs to develop them. On Saturday, the inspectors opened a new base in Mosul and they've since carried out daily searches around the northern city.
Western journalists were told they could not cover the take-off of the U.N. helicopters since it was from a military base, but the Arabic satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera showed white U.N. helicopters lifting off from Baghdad's Al-Rashid military air base. It said three U.N. aircraft were tailed by two military choppers carrying the Iraqi liaison officers who work with the inspectors.
The helicopters were said to be making an aerial survey, but U.N. officials have said the choppers also would make it easier to swoop down on potential weapons sites.
Under a new Security Council resolution, inspectors returned to Iraq on Nov. 25 after a four-year absence of any U.N. inspection program. Previous inspectors left after disputes over their alleged spying for the United States and their demands to visit the palaces of President Saddam Hussein.
The inspectors have the job of verifying that Iraq has complied with U.N. resolutions and eliminated all weapons of mass destruction, a step necessary for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on the country after its invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990. The invasion led to the Gulf War in which a U.S.-led international coalition evicted Iraqi forces.
The United States and Britain argue that Iraq is still hiding weapons and have threatened to go to war to disarm the country and end the 35-year rule of Saddam.
On Tuesday, Iraq's official newspapers reacted with skepticism to President Bush's latest statement suggesting war was not inevitable. Bush said Monday that Saddam has still "got time" to eliminate all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and long-range rockets.
The daily Al-Iraq said it was too early to say whether Bush's statement represented "a change or a deception." But it added the U.S. Administration "may have discovered, even if it is late, that any aggression on our homeland will be costly."
The daily Babil, run by Saddam's son Odai, referred to Bush's remarks as "oral maneuvers" and added: "The United States and the war mongers are still sending more troops to the region."
Echoing a speech by Saddam on Iraq's Army Day Monday, the newspaper's editorial said the U.S. goal was not only to target Iraq, but to control the vast oil resources of the Middle East. It called on fellow Arab states to "abort the ... new savagery."
In his speech, Saddam also accused the U.N. weapons inspectors of carrying out "intelligence work" instead of just searching for weapons and said the United States had pushed the arms experts to go beyond their legitimate mandate.
His remarks brought denials from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear arm of the weapons inspection program, and the State Department.
"We certainly flatly reject any accusation that we work for any government or provide direct information to any single government," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA, said at the agency's headquarters in Vienna.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Saddam's accusations were "baseless and false."
On Tuesday, inspectors working on the ground visited at least six sites, including a factory that makes Iraq's Soviet-designed Al Samood missiles, a plant that manufactures small rockets and two water treatment facilities.
They also paid their first visits to the Saddam Center for Cancer Research in Baghdad and the Kubeisa cement factory, just outside the city. The inspectors apparently were interested in the cancer center's radiation techniques, and cement companies can use so-called dual-use materials that may be employed in weapons manufacture.