BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi foreign minister on Monday accused U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of a "series of lies" alleging Iraq has not cooperated with U.N. arms monitors and accused the United States of using the weapons issue as a pretext to seize Iraq's oil.
Foreign Minister Naji Sabri also described U.S. complaints about Iraqi scientists' rejection of private U.N. interviews as a diversionary tactic, stemming from Washington's failure to produce concrete evidence of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Referring to the United States and Britain, he said their goal is "to to occupy the country" and "control its oil." He branded leaders of the two countries as "warmongers" who "export evil to other countries."
Sabri met with reporters just hours before chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear agency, were to report to the U.N. Security Council on what their arms teams have found and how well Iraq has cooperated in the first two months of their search for programs of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, forbidden to Iraq since its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
In Brussels, Belgium, meanwhile, foreign ministers of the 15 European Union nations urged Iraq to cooperate more fully with U.N. inspectors. The Union is deeply divided over how to solve the crisis surrounding Iraq's weapons program.
Iraqis waited for the U.N. judgment day confident they'll get a "gray" report, a passing grade, for accepting arms inspections, but wary of U.N. complaints that could help tilt the balance between war and peace. The U.S. and British governments threaten to invade this country if, in their view, it has not sufficiently complied with the U.N. disarmament demands.
Iraq looks for a U.N. report that "will present facts as they are, that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction," Sabri said. "And we hope the Security Council will lift the criminal sanctions on the Iraqi people."
He said Powell told a "series of lies" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend "about Iraq not cooperating over the last 11 years" with U.N. arms inspections.
He noted that U.N. monitors, in their new round of field missions in Iraq, have mounted almost 500 inspections without incident "to offices, guesthouses, mosques, universities, hospitals, factories, military sites."
"How were those things done without Iraqi cooperation?" he asked.
Iraq claimed last week that a Baghdad mosque was visited by U.N. inspectors Jan. 20. The United Nations said inspectors paid a private visit to the Al-Nid'a mosuqe but not to inspect it. There has been no reports of other visits to mosques.
In a dramatic demonstration of their daily work, the inspectors Monday joined with Iraqi missile specialists in observing the test-firing of a missile engine at the al-Rafah testing station, 25 miles southwest of Baghdad.
American intelligence analysts had suggested last October that a new al-Rafah launch site might be used for missiles with longer ranges than the 90 miles allowed under U.N. resolutions. The inspectors, who first went to al-Rafah in November, have visited more than a dozen such sites targeted by U.S. and British intelligence without reporting any violations.
Inspectors also paid a surprise visit Monday to a Health Ministry storage facility in Baghdad, where they could be seen, in protective suits, using portable detectors to check metal containers.
On the subject of scientists' interviews, Sabri told reporters that Iraq was meeting its U.N. obligation by "providing access" to weapons specialists. It is "hair-splitting," he said, to complain that the handful asked to submit to interviews without an Iraqi official monitoring -- a U.S. demand -- have refused to do so.
"You ask us to force them," he said at a news conference. "Even in your countries can you force anybody to be interviewed?"
Last week, Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that Saddam had threatened scientists with death if they cooperate. He said the threats came from intelligence sources but offered no further details.
Sabri said, however, the scientists fear that their words might be changed after private interviews. In Western countries, he asked, "can you force them to answer without the presence of their lawyer?" He said the controversy was stirred up by U.S. officials "because they have found nothing. They have no evidence, because there is nothing."
Washington and London contend they know Baghdad retains weapons of mass destruction and say a refusal to surrender them may bring on a U.S.-British invasion. But the two governments have presented no proof, and much of the world wants the Security Council to allow inspections more time.
The EU's appeal for cooperation was issued despite deep divisions over Iraq. Britain sides with Washington in advocating military action sooner rather than later. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands largely agree.
But France and Germany, joined by Austria, Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg, insist war can only come after a fresh Security Council resolution.
On the eve of the interim U.N. inspectors' assessment, President Saddam Hussein convened a joint meeting of his ruling Baath Party's leadership and the Revolution Command Council, Iraq's highest executive body, to discuss what official media called "political conditions."
No statement was issued afterward. "It's reached the point where Iraq can only react. It can't do anything," said a senior Baghdad diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's all up to Blix."
Hossam Mohammed Amin, the general who is the inspectors' chief Iraqi liaison, said last week he didn't expect a "100-percent white" report. Blix has complained, for example, about Iraq's resistance to American reconnaissance overflights on behalf of the U.N. effort. Instead, Amin said, Iraq expected a "gray" report.
The people of Baghdad, a lively, traffic-filled city despite 12 years of international sanctions on trade, went about their daily business. But ordinary Iraqis, as they have for months, sounded fearful of imminent war.
"The problem is with the United States," teacher Ahmed Falah, 43, told a reporter. "It might exploit this report as a pretext to attack us."
Few except top government officials had access to satellite television channels to watch the Blix and ElBaradei speeches at U.N. headquarters in New York.
"It's difficult to follow the news," said college student Kamil Na'aeem, 21. "I'll try to find out about Blix's report tonight by listening to the international radio stations."
If the inspectors eventually find Iraq has cooperated fully with their search for banned weapons, the Security Council may lift the economic sanctions. If Baghdad proves defiant, the council has warned of "serious consequences" for Iraq.