BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.N. inspectors revisited the main site of Iraq's former nuclear weapons program Wednesday, just hours before Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance at the U.N. Security Council to offer evidence of Iraqi attempts to hide banned weapons.
Iraq says the United States' evidence is fabricated, and President Saddam Hussein, in a rare television interview broadcast Tuesday, said Washington's claims that Iraq has chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were a pretext to seize Iraq's oil fields.
He also said Iraq is willing to work with the inspectors to avert a war.
"If the intention (of inspections) is to confirm that Iraq is free of biological and chemical and nuclear weapons, then they can do so," he said in the interview with retired British lawmaker Tony Benn. "These weapons are not some aspirin pill someone can hide in his pocket. These are weapons of mass destruction, so it's simple to determine if Iraq has them or not."
On Tuesday, U.N. inspectors searching for those weapons found an empty chemical warhead during one of a dozen surprise inspections at the al-Taji ammunition depot, just north of Baghdad. It was the 17th empty chemical warhead found over the past month.
In remarks published Wednesday in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said the number of banned weapons found in Iraq "raises many questions, that remain open, and that may indicate that some things still exist. This can't be ruled out."
Back on the road Wednesday, the inspectors searched the storage facilities at the Al-Tuwaitha complex, the heart of Iraq's former nuclear program south of Baghdad. They also paid surprise visits to a food research center in Baghdad, a dairy company west of the capital and the Laser Institute at Baghdad University.
They also inspected the Al-Mutassem factory, which produces small rockets, and an unspecified site at the Al-Karama complex, which manufactures missile components and guidance systems, according to the Information Ministry.
The inspectors visited a company called Al-Noaman, for which no details were available except that it is run by the country's state agency in charge of military industries.
Visits to sites such as dairies and breweries aim to inspect how dual-use materials are being used.
In Saddam's interview, he rejected U.S. accusations that his country has a tie to Al Qaeda, the terror network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
"If we had a relationship with Al Qaeda, and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it," he said.
A British intelligence document, leaked to the British Broadcasting Corp., also said Saddam had no "current links" to Al Qaeda.
The BBC said the Defense Intelligence Staff report alleged there had been contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the past, but that any "fledgling relationship foundered, due to mistrust and incompatible ideology," between the Islamic fundamentalist bin Laden and Saddam's secular Baath Party.
Responding to the report in Parliament, Prime Minister Tony Blair asserted that Iraq does have some links with Al Qaeda, but that they are not the basis of his support for possible military action.
Saddam's interview was taped in Baghdad on Sunday and broadcast around the world, presenting the Iraqi case before Powell's appearance before a skeptical Security Council.
The United States and Britain are trying to convince Russia, France, Germany, China -- all permanent council members wielding veto power -- and others of the need for quick military action if the Iraqis refuse to cooperate fully in the search for their alleged banned weapons.
On Tuesday, Blair failed to persuade French President Jacques Chirac that time was running out for further inspections. Chirac insisted the inspectors be given all the time they want to determine if Iraq is holding illegal weapons.
In hundreds of inspections since November, the U.N. arms controllers have yet to find a major violation of the U.N. resolutions barring Iraq from having chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The U.N. resolutions were adopted after Iraq's defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.
But the United States and Britain insist that Saddam has not complied and threaten to use force to disarm Iraq.
Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are massing in the Gulf and a third U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, has now moved within striking distance of Baghdad.
Poland's ambassador to Iraq and the head of the Polish Embassy section that has represented U.S. interests in Baghdad since the 1990s have been summoned to neighboring Jordan for consultations, Poland's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. An Iraqi guard at the embassy said the diplomats left for Jordan early Wednesday.
The Security Council session falls only days before chief U.N. inspectors, Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei travel to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi officials about unresolved issues to facilitate inspections, including a U.N. plan to use American U-2 reconnaissance planes to overfly Iraq.
In New York, Blix appealed to Iraq to mend its ways, warning that it is "five minutes to midnight" and pleading with Baghdad to show that it is actively cooperating during his visit this weekend by producing evidence about its banned weapons programs.
"I don't think that the end is there -- that a date has been set for an armed action," Blix said. "But I think that we're moving closer and closer to it, and therefore it seems to me that the Iraqi leadership must be well aware of that."