BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a move that infuriated Saddam Hussein's government, U.N. arms experts visited a presidential palace compound Wednesday in Baghdad, spending four hours searching two office complexes and opening safes.
The visit was the second to a presidential site since the inspectors resumed the search for weapons of mass destruction in November. Iraq has long resented searches in Saddam's palaces -- of which there are dozens -- calling them offenses to its sovereignty.
Inspectors had to wait 15 minutes before being given access to the compound, known as the Old Palace, while Iraqi officials sought permission from "higher authority" to let them in, said Dimitri Perricos, who led the inspection team at the palace.
"It was fine. We got permission at the end. We did not lose anything, because the site we wanted to inspect was under observation as we waited," Perricos told a news briefing.
The Old Palace, overlooking the Tigris River in Baghdad's central al-Karadah district, is used by Saddam for receiving ambassadors and foreign visitors. It was not known if Saddam was in the palace at the time.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry called Wednesday's palace inspection visit a "clearly provocative step to harass important national security sites" and said the inspection had "no relation at all to so-called disarmament."
Many of Saddam's dozens of palaces are not used for public purposes or are idle much of the time. In the past, Iraqi officials resisted palace searches. But the current inspection regime, backed by a stringent U.N. Security Council resolution, allows snap inspections of palaces.
When inspectors searched the Al-Sajoud palace in Baghdad on Dec. 3, Iraqi officials did not obstruct them, but the next day called the inspection a provocation.
Perricos said the two office complexes in the presidential compound attracted the inspectors' interest because satellite images showed they had high walls and a double fence.
The inspectors stayed longer than expected in the complex because the Iraqi official who had keys to four safes took two hours to arrive, he said. Perricos did not say what the inspectors were looking for, but added that they did not take anything from the safes.
The Security Council has warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate fully with the inspectors. The council is due to hear reports from chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, on Jan. 27.
Blix and ElBaradei visit Baghdad on Sunday and Monday to press Iraqi officials for more information. Iraq's declaration on armaments, filed last month, has been criticized for failing to account for all the weapons material produced in the past.
As he left U.N. headquarters for Europe en route to Baghdad, Blix said Wednesday he will tell Iraq the situation is "very dangerous" but it can still prevent war by providing new evidence about its weapons programs.
"They have provided prompt access, been very cooperative in terms of logistics," Blix said. "But they need to do a good deal more to provide evidence if we are to avoid any worse development."
Blix says the inspectors need months to finish their search for Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, long-range missiles, and the programs that produced them.
But with the United States deploying tens of thousands of troops to the Gulf for a possible invasion of Iraq, President Bush indicated Tuesday that the inspectors did not have so much time.
"Time is running out for him," Bush said of Saddam. "I'm sick and tired of games and deceptions." He told White House reporters Tuesday he had not seen any evidence that Saddam was disarming after more than 10 years of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The United States formally asked NATO on Wednesday for limited help in case of war with Iraq, including overflight rights, use of planning facilities and providing troops to keep the peace and help rebuild Iraq after Saddam is gone.
Official Iraqi media, meanwhile, complained about the inspectors -- who have been accused of being spies by Saddam and his aides.
In a front-page editorial Wednesday, the newspaper Babil said the government has a duty to explain to Iraqis why it is continuing to cooperate with and tolerate the inspectors.
"Iraqis are angry and agitated and some of them can longer tolerate the sight of inspectors' teams after some of their members exceeded and went beyond their mandate," said Babil, which is owned by Saddam's eldest son Odai.
U.N. experts also spent more than three hours Wednesday at a private farm about 20 kilometers (13 miles) southwest of Baghdad. It was not known what they were looking for. Perricos said the inspectors went there after satellite images showed "a strange long building in a green area" on the site.
He said inspectors also examined an ammunition depot at a site belonging to Mujahedeen Khalq -- an Iranian opposition group listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Mujahedeen Khalq, which has several guerrilla bases in Iraq, seeks to overthrow Iran's Islamic government.
Inspectors have not found any conclusive evidence to support U.S. allegations that Saddam is still holding weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Britain insist Iraq still has banned weapons and have threatened to disarm Baghdad by force if Saddam does not give up those armaments.
In an effort to avert a war, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, saying he would meet Iraqi officials about a diplomatic end to the crisis.
The United States on Wednesday sent military inspectors to a sprawling airport in Istanbul, Turkey, and to a southern Turkish port that could be used in an attack on neighboring Iraq.
Turkey granted the United States permission to inspect the facilities but has still not said whether it will let U.S. deploy troops there in case of a war.