Inspectors See Progress in Talks

Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei made some headway during their two-day trip to Baghdad, getting the Iraqi government to make partial concessions toward facilitating disarmament.

Baghdad agreed to encourage weapons specialists to submit to private interviews, according to a 10-point joint statement issued by the chief U.N. weapons inspectors and Iraqi officials Monday.

The statement did not mention any agreement on taking a scientist abroad for such interviews, as the United States insists is necessary for full disclosure of Iraq's weapons capabilities.

The government of ethnic-Greek-controlled Cyprus said Monday that the United Nations had asked to interview Iraqi scientists on the Mediterranean island, according to Reuters. The report could not be independently confirmed.

More time will be needed to get answers to key questions about old Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, said Blix, who leads the U.N. teams searching for such munitions, and ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts nuclear inspections.

"These issues are open and may require time," said Blix.

The Iraqis also told the U.N. officials they would mount a comprehensive search for old chemical warheads for rockets, such as the 16 empty munitions that have been reported found in recent days.

Amir al-Saadi, science adviser to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, described the discussions as "very constructive and positive."

On a broader subject, Blix and ElBaradei said the Iraqis had agreed to respond to questions regarding the 12,000-page declaration submitted by Baghdad on Dec. 8 which reported on the country's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.

Both Washington and the U.N. inspectors have criticized that declaration as inadequate.

Iraq handed over some documents Monday to help fill gaps in the declaration. Others requested have not been produced.

Blix said the U.N. teams have not yet analyzed the documents, but he told reporters, "For the moment, I don't see that this has taken us forward." He added, however, that "at least it was a response, a partial response." He did not describe the material.

Blix noted that substantive issues still need to be resolved including questions about the disposition of old Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, such as VX nerve agent and anthrax.

But, speaking of the agreement on practical matters, he said, "We have come a long way" toward what he called an "effective, credible disarmament process."

"Today was just not the time for substantive issues," he added.

Outlining the points of agreement, al-Saadi said the Iraqi government agreed to enact laws on "proscribed materials," meaning weapons of mass destruction, as had been urged by the United Nations.

"Persons asked for interviews in private will be encouraged to accept," al-Saadi said.

In addition to encouraging scientists to speak with inspectors in private, al-Saadi said the list of people involved in weapons research programs "will be supplemented in accordance with advice" from the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Iraq expressed readiness to respond to questions raised" in connection with its weapons declaration.

The two U.N. officials arrived in Baghdad on Sunday to seek greater cooperation from Iraq as the United States warned time was running out for Baghdad to comply with U.N. orders or face attack.

ElBaradei and Blix left Iraq for Athens later in the day. They will report to the Security Council on Jan. 27 about the status of the inspections, which resumed in November after a four-year hiatus.

Blix would not say whether the report would be upbeat or pessimistic, but he said of the discussions here: "There are a number of points which would have otherwise been negative but which have now been turned around."

After submitting their update report next Monday, the inspectors are expected, under a U.N. timeline, to formally lay out specific disarmament tasks for Iraq in late March, and four months later to report whether the Iraqis have complied.

If Iraq does, the council will consider lifting international economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

On Sunday, ElBaradei said "time is running out" for Iraq to provide more information on its weapons programs, echoing comments made by senior U.S. officials.

The United States and Britain insist Iraq still maintains illegal weapons and has threatened war if Saddam does not give them up. But other members of the 15-nation Security Council advocate more patience, allowing the inspectors months more to do their job.

In Washington, Bush administration officials again signaled impatience with the process.

"We can't keep this up forever," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday. He said Iraq still has not accounted for stocks of biological and chemical warfare agents "that we know they had."

The Bush administration has said repeatedly it has "solid" evidence Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, but thus far it has not made any such information public.

Under the U.N. timeline, the inspectors are expected to formally lay out specific disarmament tasks for Iraq in late March, and four months later to report whether the Iraqis complied. If they do, the council will consider lifting international economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

U.S. Navy flotillas and military units were slowly converging on the seas and deserts of the Middle East, to give Bush the offensive power needed for any strike into Iraq.

In neighboring Turkey, where the government has hesitated to grant permission for deployment of U.S. troops, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Turkish defense officials on Monday.

The United States reportedly had planned to base up to 80,000 soldiers in Turkey, but Western diplomats said that the United States is considering scaling back that request to between 15,000 and 20,000 soldiers. Opinion polls in Turkey indicate 80 percent public opposition to war against Iraq.

In another tactic to oust Saddam, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that he supports exile for him and other Iraqi leaders to avoid a war.

"To avoid a war, I would be personally — would recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country," Rumsfeld said on ABC's This Week.

"And I think that that would be a fair trade to avoid a war."

In Beirut, Saddam's cousin and special envoy to Arab leaders dismissed talk of the Iraqi leader going into exile as "silly" speculation.

"I hereby reiterate that this is silly," said Ali Hassan al-Majid, a member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. "The Iraqi people have taken an authentic, pure and true decision in choosing Saddam as president. The Iraqis are ready to defend him."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.