BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three Iraqi scientists rejected a request by U.N. weapons inspectors to undergo private interviews to aid the U.N. search for evidence of forbidden arms programs, a senior Iraqi official said Saturday.
Both the United Nations and the United States have pressed Iraq to persuade its scientists to speak privately to the inspectors, hoping the absence of Iraqi officials would encourage them to be more candid about the nature of their work.
Iraq's government maintains it's doing everything it can to "encourage" the scientists but says they are refusing because of fears their information could be distorted.
In other developments Saturday:
— Two men — one carrying three knives and the other shouting "Save me!" — were detained after trying separately to enter the U.N. inspectors' Baghdad compound.
— Secretary of State Colin Powell urged other countries to not shrink from the effort to disarm Iraq, by force if necessary, just because "the going is getting tough."
— Iraq's parliament speaker warned that his country would use "every method" to defend itself against an attack.
— For the second time in 24 hours, U.S. warplanes attacked an Iraqi military target inside the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, the U.S. Central Command said.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry had said late Friday that three scientists the U.N. inspectors wanted to question in private Saturday were "encouraged" to do so. But in the end all three refused, insisting government officials must be present, said a senior Iraqi official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
He said the inspectors interviewed one of the three Saturday, but with Iraqi officials sitting in on the meeting. The identities of the three scientists were not revealed.
Hiro Ueki, spokesman for the U.N. inspectors in Baghdad, confirmed the Iraqi account. He said two scientists refused to be questioned without Iraqi officials present, so the inspectors canceled the interviews altogether.
A team from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency flew by helicopter to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq to interview the third scientist privately, but he would not agree, Ueki's statement said.
"The individual concerned declined the request. The interview was then conducted with a representative of the NMD (Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate) present," Ueki's statement said, adding that the inspectors "will continue to seek interviews in private."
The interview took place inside the northern "no-fly zone" enforced by the United States and Britain since the 1991 Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds from Iraq's army.
Ueki's statement said officials from the Iraqi NMD flew on the same helicopter. The United Nations last week canceled an inspection in the no-fly zone when the Iraqi side insisted on following in their own helicopters. Saturday's trip, with the Iraqis on board the U.N. aircraft, was in line with an agreement reached last week to settle the problem.
At the inspectors compound on Baghdad's outskirts, there was no explanation for the attempt by the two men to force their way inside. Nor was it known if the two incidents were connected.
The first man, armed with three knives and a piece of metal, was apprehended as he tried to get through the front gate and was taken away by Iraqi police.
About 45 minutes later, a young man ran in front of inspectors' vehicles, shouting "Save me!", and was allowed to enter one vehicle. He was carrying a notebook, which U.N. officials said was empty. Ueki said the man was turned over to Iraqi authorities.
The subject of private interviews has become a major issue in advance of a report to the U.N. Security Council Monday by chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei on Iraq's compliance with U.N. Resolution 1441 giving arms inspectors the right to search for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons anywhere in Iraq.
Washington, which accuses Iraq of hiding such weapons, has taken a hard line on the interview issue.
Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said Saturday the Iraqis' rejection of private interviews is "further evidence that Iraq has something to hide." Iraq's government must let such interviews happen, as required by the U.N. resolution, "without delay and without debate," he said.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state repeated charges that Iraq's 12,000-word weapons declaration contained gaps on biological and chemical weapons and warned the international community against abandoning the cause of disarming Iraq.
In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Powell exhorted world leaders to ensure that Iraq surrenders its forbidden weapons — or to remove them by force if necessary.
"We cannot now start shrinking because the going is getting tough," Powell said as 1,500 to 2,000 protesters marched through the Alpine resort chanting anti-war slogans and blowing whistles.
Meeting with reporters, Powell said Iraq had not accounted for biological and chemical agents or systems for delivering such weapons. "These are not trivial matters. These are deadly serious matters," he said. "Iraq must comply, or it will be made to comply with military force."
Powell did not mention a timetable. But a senior U.S. official said Friday that Washington was considering giving the U.N. inspectors more time to look for weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq.
The U.N. nuclear agency, headed by ElBaradei, said Friday that analyses of samples taken by nuclear inspectors in Iraq have so far not revealed any evidence of prohibited nuclear activity.
Russia, France and Germany are insisting the inspectors be given more time. After meeting Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said there was "growing support" in Europe for Germany's opposition to military action.
A few thousand people opposed to a war in Iraq staged several demonstrations across Germany on Saturday, including one that blocked the road to a NATO base. Protesters also rallied in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to express solidarity with Iraqis.
As the United States continued assembling the biggest ground, naval and air force since it led a coalition to defeat Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, Saadoun Hammadi, speaker of Iraq's parliament, said that if war comes, Iraqis "will fight fiercely until the end" and use "every method to inflict heavy damages on the enemy."
Speaking during a visit to New Delhi, India, Hammadi did not elaborate on what he meant by "every method." The U.S. government has repeatedly warned the Iraqi military not to use any chemical or biological weapons it may have against U.S. troops.
Reporting on the airstrike in the southern "no fly" zone, U.S. Central Command said allied warplanes were responding to "hostile acts" by Iraqi air defenses. It said bombs were dropped on an anti-aircraft site near Tallil, about 170 miles southeast of Baghdad.