UNITED NATIONS – Warning Baghdad that it's "five minutes to midnight," chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix pleaded with the Iraqi government Tuesday to produce evidence about its weapons programs during his visit this weekend.
With Secretary of State Colin Powell set to present the U.S. case for disarming Iraq to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Blix said Baghdad should take seriously U.S. warnings that the diplomatic window is closing and the prospect of military action is looming.
On the eve of a critical 10-day period, U.S. officials say Powell will provide new evidence of Iraqi weapons programs and links to Al Qaeda. Powell will be seeking support from skeptical council members who want inspections to continue and see no need to rush to war.
In anticipation of the evidence Powell is expected to unveil, Blix said he saw no proof that any information was being leaked to the Iraqis about inspection sites, and no evidence that Iraq was moving banned material to escape inspectors.
"We have not seen any signs of things being moved around, whether tracks in the sand or in the ground," he said. Inspectors have also taken samples at many sites, and those analyzed so far do not indicate that any illegal weapons had been moved, he added.
Blix also said Iraq had declared two mobile labs, which it said were being used to test food. They had been inspected and no evidence was found that Iraq was using them for biological weapons, he said.
"We have not found any [mobile labs] designed to do weapons," he said.
Nonetheless, he said, Iraq must do much more very quickly to present any information about banned weapons programs, and if it doesn't have any -- as it claims -- it must present "credible evidence for their absence."
"I'm pleading for Iraq to enter cooperation on substance," he said.
In an interview broadcast Tuesday night on MSNBC, Blix said he had seen no evidence to support U.S. assertions that weapons and scientists were being smuggled out of Iraq and was "doubtful" about claims that Iraqi intelligence agents were posing as scientists.
As for Iraq's purported links to Al Qaeda, Blix said, "I see skepticism about this. As a lawyer and the chief inspector, I'd like to see evidence, but I have not seen any evidence that shows this."
Nuclear inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who will be heading to Baghdad with Blix for talks with Iraqi officials this weekend, said the United Nations wants "quick progress and drastic change" from Iraq in providing evidence about its chemical and biological weapons.
"We are very much looking forward to ... Secretary Powell's presentation -- and to see whether we can factor it in our assessment, in our approach," he told The Associated Press.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, in an interview broadcast Tuesday, denied his government has a relationship with Al Qaeda or has weapons of mass destruction, which he said would be impossible to hide. He said Iraq did not want war and was willing to work with U.N. weapons inspectors if they had no ulterior purpose.
But Blix said the Iraqi government's response so far hasn't indicated it is prepared to provide the critical information that he and ElBaradei want to see ahead of their Feb. 14 report to the Security Council.
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, the current council president, said that report will be "very important" in the council's determination of whether inspections are successful or whether there is a new "material breech," or violation -- a determination likely to trigger military action.
Blix warned Iraq that time was running out, even though he and others have said they would welcome more time for inspections.
"Isn't there five minutes to midnight in your political assessment?" he asked reporters.
A reporter then asked whether that was Blix's assessment.
"Well certainly," he said. "We all know that the situation is very serious."