UNITED NATIONS – Weapons inspectors have delivered a tough message to Iraq: Opening doors and submitting old declarations isn't enough to satisfy the United Nations, and Baghdad must prove that its arms programs have been destroyed.
Chief inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who is in charge of nuclear inspections, told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday they have found no "smoking gun" since U.N. inspections resumed on Nov. 27 -- but that doesn't mean there isn't one.
The top inspectors plan to fly to Baghdad on Jan. 19-20 to tell senior officials they must provide "credible evidence" about Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs; beef up the list of scientists Iraq handed over in late December; and answer a host of questions on outstanding issues ranging from anthrax production to missing high explosives.
"The declaration ... is rich in volume but poor in new information," Blix said.
The United States has insisted that Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons programs and demanded that Iraq admit it. "We know for a fact that there are weapons there," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington.
The Bush administration declared that Iraq is already guilty of a new "material breach" of council resolutions -- a possible first step to war -- because of omissions and evasions in the declaration and its lack of "genuine cooperation" with inspectors.
Russia does not share the U.S. view, according to its U.N. ambassador, Sergey Lavrov.
"We want the inspectors to continue. It is not for us, it is not for anybody to pass any judgment," Lavrov said.
That view was echoed by the majority of the 15 council members.
Under Resolution 1441, adopted Nov. 8, the Security Council would declare a new "material breach" if there are false statements or omissions in Iraq's declaration and the Iraqi government fails to cooperate with inspections.
German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, whose government opposes military action against Iraq, said inspections should continue "and for that reason alone there are no grounds for military action."
Even Britain, which backs U.S. military action if Iraq fails to comply with inspections, held back from declaring Iraq in violation of the resolution.
"As the days go by, I think the failure of Iraq proactively to cooperate, if that is continued, will become an increasingly serious matter," said Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock.
Blix took issue with Iraq's contention that prompt access to inspectors, and their failure to find any illegal items so far, confirm Iraq's assertion that there are no clandestine weapons programs in the country.
"The absence of `smoking guns' and the prompt access which we have had so far ... is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites," he said.
Unless Iraq provides evidence that gives "a high degree of assurance" that its weapons programs have been destroyed, he said inspectors will not be able to report to the council that the country no longer has weapons of mass destruction -- the key to suspending and ultimately lifting sanctions imposed after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In Iraq, Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin rejected charges that its 12,000-page weapons declaration was incomplete, and vowed to lodge an official complaint with Blix about "dubious" questions posed by members of his team.
Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the inspection teams, said 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.
ElBaradei complained that inspectors haven't been able to talk to scientists without Iraqi officials present.
Blix had previously complained that the United States and Britain weren't providing inspectors with intelligence. Britain said it opened a channel to provide information several weeks ago and U.S. officials said they recently started to give the inspectors some intelligence.
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."
The inspectors are to give a formal report on Iraq's compliance on Jan. 27.