UNITED NATIONS – Iraq is engaged in a "deliberate attempt to deceive" the world and is in "material breach" of the U.N. mandate that it disarm, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte said Thursday.
Negroponte spoke at a press briefing after U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said Iraq had violated U.N. sanctions by importing missile engines and raw material for the production of solid missile fuel.
Earlier, Blix told reporters that the inspectors have found "no smoking guns" in Iraq, but Baghdad's arms declaration to the Security Council "failed to answer a great many questions."
The Bush administration warned that Saddam Hussein is hiding evidence and will face serious consequences if he doesn't disarm.
"We know for a fact that there are weapons there," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington.
Briefing the Security Council ahead of their trip to Baghdad next week, Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said they were investigating illegal Iraqi imports of parts for its missile program and the fate of 32 tons of HMX high explosive that Iraq says was used for industrial purposes but which can also be used to detonate nuclear weapons.
Blix and ElBaradei said their teams need more time and more intelligence from U.N. members to help aid them in a search which has already taken inspectors to more than 300 sites in the past two months.
For much of the Security Council, evidence of clandestine Iraqi weapons programs would be crucial for support of any military action and members left Thursday's briefing determined to give inspectors the time they needed to get the job done.
"We're asking [the inspectors] to step up the intensity of what they're doing. But they've got to do it professionally, and they need time," British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock told reporters. German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger went a step further, saying he saw "no grounds for military action."
In a sharply-worded assessment, Blix said Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration was "rich in volume but poor in new information," and he told the council bluntly that "Iraq must present credible evidence," to support claims that it long ago dismantled illicit weapons programs.
"The absence of a smoking gun and the prompt access which we have had so far ... is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites, whether above ground, underground or in mobile units," Blix told the council.
Negroponte said cooperation needed to be about more than just "opening doors" and he said it was time for Baghdad to admit it still had such weapons of mass destruction.
"Anything less is not cooperation and will constitute further material breach," Negroponte said, using diplomatic language that could pave the way for war. The United States, backed by Britain, has threatened military action against Iraq if it does not comply with the United Nations.
Weapons inspections resumed Nov. 27 under a toughened U.N. resolution that, among other measures, allows inspectors to interview Iraqi scientists in private or even abroad, in a bid to encourage them to expose hidden programs.
ElBaradei complained Thursday that inspectors haven't been able to talk to scientists without Iraqi officials being present. "That does not show the proactive cooperation we seek," he said.
Blix said the Iraqis had failed to provide his office with a complete list of scientists he wanted interviewed. "We do not feel that the Iraqi side has made a serious effort to respond to the request that we made. The lists do not even comprise all those who have been previously listed," in past declarations, Blix said.
The inspectors noted inconsistencies throughout Iraq's declaration, in areas ranging from the fate of VX nerve gas it produced to the production and destruction of anthrax.
In Iraq, Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin rejected charges that its weapons declaration was incomplete, and he vowed to lodge an official complaint with Blix about "dubious" questions posed by members of his team during visits to suspected weapons sites.
Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the inspection teams, said that a U.N. inspector had raised the possibility of taking Iraqi scientists to Cyprus for questioning. He said scientists could decide for themselves whether to go but that they were expected to refuse.
Blix told reporters earlier that he hadn't heard of such a request but planned to conduct interviews in Baghdad next week.
Negroponte said the United States wanted inspectors "to begin out-of-country interviews."
"The burden remains on Iraq to demonstrate compliance," Negroponte said, adding that inspectors are there to "verify Iraqi disarmament, not to serve as detectives working to overcome elaborate concealment mechanisms."
The inspectors are to give a formal report on Iraq's compliance on Jan. 27. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that date should not be seen as a deadline for conflict.
"We are in the middle of a process. The U.N. inspectors have just, at the beginning of the year, got their full complement of inspectors there," Blair told government ministers in London on Thursday, according to his spokesman.
The United States and Britain have said they have intelligence showing that Baghdad has banned weapons, and Blix has previously asked for any information to help the search.
Asked whether inspectors were getting significant intelligence from the United States, Blix said: "Well, we are getting intelligence from several sources ... it's clear that this will be helpful in the future to us."
"As more intelligence comes in, there will be more sites visited. I'm confident that we will get more intelligence," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac, two days after telling his armed forces to be ready "for all eventualities," said Thursday he hoped the Iraq crisis would be resolved peacefully, with military action only as a last resort.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.