BAGHDAD, Iraq – A senior Iraqi official said Thursday his government has encouraged a half-dozen Iraqi scientists to submit to private interviews with arms inspectors, under a new U.N. agreement, but all refused and demanded that government officials be present.
Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, chief liaison with the U.N. weapons monitors, also said the chief U.N. inspectors "exaggerated" differences between them and the Iraqi government in talks last Sunday and Monday.
The inspectors believe scientists with possible leads to any work on forbidden weapons will be less candid in interviews if government officials listen in. In a 10-point agreement emerging from the recent two days of talks, the Iraqis committed to urging potential witnesses be interviewed privately.
"As we promised, that we shall encourage the scientists to make interviews, we did our best to push the scientists," Amin said. "But they refused to make such interviews without the presence of (government) officials."
The inspectors continued their daily hunt for banned weapons Thursday, revisiting the chemical and explosives company QaQa, a site 16 miles south of Baghdad that has been inspected frequently.
They also dropped in at the medical and science colleges of Baghdad's al-Mustansiriya University and a fiberglass tubing factory south of the capital, according to the Information Ministry.
The inspectors returned to Iraq in November armed with a stringent U.N. Security Council resolution empowering them to look anywhere in Iraq for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad denies it possesses any.
Faced with U.S. threats to disarm President Saddam Hussein's regime by force if it doesn't surrender its weapons, Iraq pledged Monday to U.N. chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei that it would do more to facilitate the work of the inspectors.
The two men are to report to the Security Council next Monday about Iraq's compliance.
Iraq's government-controlled media have been criticizing the inspectors for weeks ever since Saddam accused them in a Jan. 6 speech of spying.
However, the level of opposition to the inspectors appeared to rise Wednesday -- only two days after the promise of greater cooperation.
After a U.N. inspection team paid an unannounced visit Wednesday to the Baghdad Technology Institute, several dozen students carrying T-squares and hastily scribbled protest signs poured out in protest.
The inspectors have made at least a dozen visits to colleges in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq since November without any such protests. It is assumed the Wednesday protest was state-sanctioned because unauthorized public demonstrations are unheard of in Iraq.
Later Wednesday, Iraqi authorities brought the owner of an abandoned chicken farm and a mosque preacher before foreign journalists, who listened as the pair expressed outrage at the inspectors' behavior.
The inspectors say they searched the chicken farm twice -- on Jan. 15 and 20 -- after satellite images showed "a strange long building in a green area" at the site. The farm owner, Sabah Anwar Mohammed, said they demolished a wall in his farm to get into a brick shed and behaved arrogantly. He said he wanted the Foreign Ministry to sue them on his behalf.
"As a citizen I was provoked," Mohammed told a news conference at the Information Ministry.
"I will normally fight anyone who comes in here uninvited," he later told reporters who visited the farm. Had it not been for the interest of Iraq, he explained, he would not have allowed them to visit his farmhouse or bring down part of a wall.
Amir al-Saadi, Saddam's science adviser, cited the farm inspection in a Monday news briefing as an example of inspectors ignoring local sensitivities and trying to test Iraq's tolerance.
Muslim cleric Quteiba Saadi Amash said the sanctity of his mosque had been violated by five male inspectors who dropped in unexpectedly Monday.
A U.N. spokesman in Baghdad said Thursday that five inspectors indeed visited the mosque, but not to inspect it.
"It was a private visit. They just wanted to visit a mosque," U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki told The Associated Press. "They had no intention to enter, but they were invited to see it. They took pictures only after they asked. Everyone at the mosque was very cordial to them."
Branding them "inquisitors, not inspectors," Amash said the men went to Al-Nid'a mosque, an imposing structure that opened to worshippers last year, and were not accompanied by Iraqi liaison officials, who go with them on all their inspections.
"Are they looking for weapons of mass destruction or are they gauging the faith in our hearts?" he asked. "This is a provocation for Muslims in Iraq and their right to worship," said Amash, who added that the inspectors also wanted to know the number of worshippers on Fridays, when Muslims perform their main weekly prayers.
"We thank God that it was not a time of prayer when they came because their lives would have been in danger if they had," he said, suggesting that angry worshippers would have attacked them.