WASHINGTON – The White House is considering whether to extend U.N. inspections in Iraq beyond Monday's deadline, in an effort to appease an international community that is growing increasingly opposed to an attack against Saddam.
The decision on prolonging weapons probes will be based on whether the inspections are found productive, a senior U.S. official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said that if the inspectors disclose new evidence on Monday, that would influence a decision to keep looking for illegal arms.
In two months of searches, weapons inspectors have turned up few of the thousands of weapons the administration insists President Saddam Hussein has been hiding. And a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that director Mohamed elBaradei will give Iraq "quite satisfactory" grades in Monday’s report to the U.N. Security Council.
In their arguments against rushing to war, France, Germany and Russia have been citing the apparent lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany said Friday there was "growing support" in Europe for Germany's opposition to war in Iraq. "I will not give up this basic position," Schroeder said after conferring with Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreeing the inspectors should have more time.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Thursday "we deemed there are no serious reasons for war with Iraq." And he said that Moscow would do all it could to promote diplomacy to deal with Iraq.
Bush interceded with Putin, but the Kremlin said Putin told Bush on the telephone that "the main criterion" should be the findings of U.N. weapons inspectors.
After briefings on Capitol Hill Thursday from Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., said he thought inspections would be continued.
Two U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, continued to urge Bush to seek a diplomatic solution.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned Friday against a "rush to war in the absence of a strong multilateral coalition." And Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said "we have yet to see any evidence that Saddam still has weapons of mass destruction."
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer had strong words for Saddam's lack of compliance.
Fleischer called Iraq's unwillingness to make its scientists fully available to U.N. inspectors "unacceptable," adding that Saddam's conduct will make "the end of the line come even closer. His refusal is further evidence that Iraq has something to hide."
The presidential spokesman said Saddam "has an obligation to comply" with every provision of last November's U.N. resolution that sent weapons inspectors back to Iraq. The resolution included a requirement that Saddam make scientists available for unfettered interviews.
"This is not a matter for negotiation. This is not a matter for debate. Saddam Hussein has no choice," Fleischer said, saying Bush wants Saddam to fully comply "without delay and without debate."
"President Bush believes that Iraq's refusal to allow Iraqi scientists to submit to private interviews with U.N. inspectors is unacceptable," Fleischer said.
The strong words came as European opposition to an attack on Iraq appeared to be growing -- opposition that includes Russia, Germany and France -- despite Powell's offer for a fresh U.N. debate on using force.
Fleischer acknowledged the divisions among European allies.
"The president respects those nations... but Europe is not a monolith. European governments represent many different points of view... The president is confident that, if the call is made, that Europe will answer the call," he said.
With U.N. inspectors having difficulty talking to Iraqi scientists about suspected weapons programs, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the administration was providing inspectors with "names of individuals whom we believe it would be productive to interview."
And, Wolfowitz said, the administration was giving them information about sites suspected of containing hidden weapons and helping the inspectors on ways to thwart Iraqi infiltration.
In what was the most extensive description by an administration official of U.S. intelligence support, Wolfowitz also said, "We know from multiple sources that Saddam has ordered that any scientists who cooperate during interviews will be killed, as well as their families."
Also, the Pentagon official said, "Scientists are being tutored on what to say to the U.N. inspectors and Iraqi intelligence officers are posing as scientists to be interviewed by the inspectors."
But in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, a senior Iraqi official, said Iraqi scientists had refused to submit to private interviews with U.N. arms inspectors despite government attempts to encourage them to do so under an agreement with the United Nations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.