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U.N. Inspectors Visit Saddam's Palace in Baghdad

U.N. arms experts inspected a presidential palace in the heart of the Iraqi capital Wednesday, making their second visit to a residence of President Saddam Hussein since inspections resumed last year.

The inspectors, who are seeking weapons of mass destruction, visited a complex in the al-Karadah district known popularly as the Old Palace. It was not immediately known if Saddam was in the palace, which overlooks the Tigris river.

Journalists, who were kept outside by Iraqi security officers, peered through the black and white gates to see U.N. and Iraqi vehicles parked on a long road lined by palm trees. They could not see the palace, which was built after the fall of the monarchy in 1958, bombed twice during 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequently repaired.

Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix said Tuesday that the inspectors would need months to finish their search for Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, long-range missiles, and the programs that produced them.

However, President Bush indicated the inspectors did not have that much time.

"Time is running out for him," Bush said of Saddam. Bush told White House reporters Tuesday he had not seen any evidence the Iraqi president was disarming after more than 10 years of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"He must disarm," Bush said. "I'm sick and tired of games and deceptions. And that's my view of timetables."

Since inspections resumed in November, they are not known to have discovered any evidence to support U.S. allegations that Saddam has hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction. But the Iraqi declaration on armaments, filed to the Security Council last month, failed to account for all the weapons material produced in the past, according to Blix.

Blix -- who heads to Baghdad on Sunday with Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the U.N. nuclear agency -- said Tuesday: "There are a great many open questions as to their possession of weapons of mass destruction" and "we need to have more evidence supplied to us."

The United States, which is deploying about 100,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq, said Tuesday it was calling up Iraqi exiles who wish to assist in such an attack.

The first batch of Iraqi dissidents who have volunteered to serve with U.S. forces have been told by the Pentagon to assemble at marshaling centers in the next several days, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Up to 3,000 Iraqis are expected to be trained to act as translators, guides, military police and liaisons between U.S. forces and the Iraqi population. Washington has ruled out early suggestions that the dissidents would be used in combat.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday he saw no reason for an invasion of Iraq as U.N. weapons inspectors were "just getting up to full speed."

The United States and Britain have threatened to invade Iraq and disarm it by force. They have also said they will not be constrained if the U.N. Security Council fails to agree on military action against Baghdad.

Security Council Resolution 1441, passed in November, warns Iraq of "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate fully with the U.N. inspectors. The council is due to convene Jan. 27 to hear reports from Blix and ElBaradei and assess Iraqi cooperation.

On the Arab diplomatic front, Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday canceled a visit to Iran, scheduled to begin later in the day, during which he was expected to discuss efforts to avert a war with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Neither government gave an immediate explanation.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted by state-controlled media as saying he would meet a personal envoy from Saddam on Saturday.

"I will meet him to see what he has to say, " Mubarak said. The president did not name the envoy, but the semiofficial state news agency has identified him as Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's cousin.

Al-Majid is close to Saddam and has been linked to some of the most brutal events of his regime, including chemical attacks on Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988, in which thousands of people were killed.

Also Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov headed to Baghdad for talks on the crisis, as well as on Iraq's decision to cancel a multibillion-dollar oil contract with a Russian company.

U.N. inspectors last visited a presidential palace, the al-Sajoud in Baghdad, on Dec. 3. The Iraqis did not block the visit, but complained that it was unnecessary.

Iraq strongly resisted searches of presidential grounds under a different U.N. inspection regime during the 1990s, leading to an agreement whereby such visits could take place only with notice and an escort of foreign diplomats.

However, Resolution 1441 explicitly gives the inspectors the right to visit any site in Iraqi at any time and without warning.