WASHINGTON – The head of the U.N. nuclear weapons inspection agency is taking his plea for help in searching for deadly Iraqi arms to the Bush administration, as evidence for a case against President Saddam Hussein remains elusive.
Mohamed ElBaradei had meetings set Friday with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's assistant for national security, after reporting U.N. weapons inspectors had found no "smoking gun" to prove Iraq had nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Among the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, only the United States is declaring Iraq in material breach of its commitments to disarm. The lack of strong support could hurt U.S. chances of persuading the Council to endorse the use of force against Saddam.
The administration did not relent in its allegations. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We know for a fact that there are weapons there."
ElBaradei and Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, reported Thursday their inspection teams needed more time and more intelligence from U.N. members. Inspectors have been to more than 300 sites in the past two months.
The setback to the Bush administration was reflected in a statement by Gunter Pleuger, the German ambassador to the United Nations, who said he saw "no grounds for military action."
Even Britain, the most steadfast ally of the United States, appeared to be skeptical of using force without evidence of hidden weapons.
ElBaradei could discuss with Powell and Rice strategy for gaining access to Iraqi scientists who might be able to provide information to back up U.S. allegations of hidden weapons caches.
He also intended to discuss how to deal with North Korea's moves to unfreeze its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has taken steps to block ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency from monitoring its programs.
The White House has sought to defuse that crisis by offering direct talks with Pyongyang. And a surprise intermediary, New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, stepped in to receive two North Korean diplomats, their trip to Santa Fe cleared by Powell.
"I want to be able to help my country," said Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador. He visited North Korea on two diplomatic missions while he was still a member of Congress during the 1990s.
The initiative for the meeting was taken by North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador, Han Song Ryol. A second diplomat, Mun Jong Chol, joined Han.
Richardson said before the two-hour dinner meeting at the governor's mansion: "I support the administration's policy. I am going to try to be helpful. I am not an official negotiator. The administration has many channels that they are pursuing with the North Koreans."
Richardson's spokesman, Billy Sparks, later described the talks as "cordial but candid." He, however, declined to provide any details of the meeting, which ended about the same time that North Korea announced its withdrawal from the global nuclear arms control treaty.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell had reviewed U.S. policy on North Korea with Richardson before the North Koreans arrived.
Fleischer reiterated Thursday that the Bush administration would make no concessions.
In 1996, as a New Mexico congress member, Richardson went to North Korea and helped secure the release of an American who had been detained for three months on spy charges. In 1994, he helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.
He also undertook diplomatic forays into Sudan, Cuba and Iraq during his House days. He was sometimes known at the "U.S. ambassador to rogue states."
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, told reporters in Washington on Thursday that Russia was in a position to influence North Korea but was not doing enough.
Russia could offer to help North Korea with its energy needs, Vershbow said in remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research group.