BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two more Iraqi specialists refused requests Thursday to submit to private interviews in the U.N. search for signs of banned weapons in Iraq, the U.N. inspection agency reported.
A total of 15 individuals, most believed to be biological, chemical or nuclear experts, have now declined to be questioned by U.N. inspectors without the presence of an Iraqi government official or other witness. Three of those each declined two requests.
The two unidentified specialists "showed up with a person at the agreed hotel and insisted on having the individual with them during an interview. Consequently, no private interviews took place," said Hiro Ueki, Baghdad spokesman for the U.N. inspection agency.
Iraqi officials say that under an agreement reached Jan. 20 with chief U.N. inspectors, they are encouraging scientists to submit to unmonitored questioning. But they all feel that having a witness would protect them against possible later distortion of their answers.
The U.N. inspectors, on the other hand, believe scientists would be more candid in interviews without representatives of Iraq's authoritarian government listening in.
On Tuesday, the chief Iraqi liaison to the inspections, Maj. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, said the Iraqi government cannot force experts to testify to the United States unaccompanied by witnesses. But he said Baghdad is willing to discuss the problem with U.N. officials to find a solution.
After its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was forbidden by U.N. resolutions to maintain programs for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Inspectors in the 1990s certified the destruction of the vast bulk of its chemical and biological weapons, and dismantled a program to build nuclear arms.
Inspections resumed in November, after a four-year gap, to try to resolve discrepancies and gaps in the record.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq's ruling party newspaper dismissed President Bush's State of the Union speech as a "Hollywood farce," and said he offered no new evidence to support an array of accusations about hidden Iraqi weapons.
"It isn't Iraq that is misleading in this. It is Bush," said an editorial in Al-Thawra.
President Saddam Hussein, seeking to bolster Iraqi confidence in the confrontation with Washington, assured top military commanders in a meeting televised late Wednesday that they would repel any U.S. attack.
"Iraq is not Afghanistan," the Iraqi president reminded them. He said well-supplied Iraqi defense lines would "absorb the momentum of the attack, destroy it and defeat it."
Americans have no right to attack this country, he said. "Every one of them, from the top down to the smallest soldier, is coming as an aggressor with ambitions."
Long-term, a U.S. offensive might leave a huge number of civilian casualties, a 16-member team of American humanitarian specialists said in Baghdad on Thursday, after completing a 10-day survey throughout Iraq.
They cited a confidential U.N. document projecting a worst case of up to 500,000 Iraqis killed, wounded or stricken by disease, particularly if U.S. bombs target Iraq's electricity grid, crippling water, sanitation, public health and food distribution systems.
The disruption of water and sewage systems after the Americans bombed the power grid in 1991 was blamed for thousands of subsequent Iraqi deaths by disease.
Reported Pentagon plans to again target the power system would constitute war crimes, as the Geneva Conventions governing warfare forbid attacking "objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population," said Roger Normand, executive director of the New York-based of Center for Economic and Social Rights, which sponsored the survey team.
The Baath Party newspaper ran an editorial that seconded the commentaries of Iraqi officials in the hours after Bush's speech Tuesday night. The president alleged that Iraq retained chemical and biological arms in defiance of U.N. resolutions. The Baghdad government says it has no programs to make weapons of mass destruction.
The al-Thawra editorial said Bush provided neither "evidence of substance or of logic."
"This speech is full of verbal clamor and Hollywood farce, and is a continuation of the U.S. government's aggressive policy and its technique of lies, deception and misleading," it said.
Bush administration officials have said for months they have solid evidence that Iraq still has banned weapons have not disclosed it. They say Secretary of State Colin Powell will present the evidence next week to the U.N. Security Council.
On their daily rounds Thursday, U.N. inspectors visited Baghdad's 17th of April missile parts factory, named for a victorious battle in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Inspectors also visited the capital's Central Public Health Laboratory and other sites.
The chief U.N. arms inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, reported to the council Monday that Iraq was cooperating on practical matters, but was not offering evidence to allay suspicions it retains chemical or biological weapons missed by inspectors in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, the Baghdad government submitted a seven-page response to the United Nations, saying their report was skewed toward the negative and asserting that former chief U.N. inspector Richard Butler had ignored "important and indisputable evidence" in the 1990s that Iraq destroyed all biological weapons in 1991.