BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three Iraqi arms experts gave private interviews to U.N. monitors Friday on the eve of a pivotal visit by the two chief weapons inspectors, who will demand greater cooperation from Baghdad to stave off war.
Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who were due here Saturday, said they took as a hopeful sign Iraq's decision a day earlier to grant the first such unmonitored interview after months of pressure.
The three new interviews were part of a flurry of activity by the Iraqi leadership Friday as President Bush courted the leaders of France and China in an uphill struggle to win U.N. backing for war with Iraq.
"The U.N. Security Council has got to make up its mind soon as to whether or not its word means anything," Bush said.
Bush spoke by phone with French President Jacques Chirac and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He told Jiang that "time was of the essence in dealing with Iraq" and that "the credibility of the United Nations was at stake," spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
But France and China pressed more inspections.
The United Nations confirmed the new interviews late Friday, saying inspectors interviewed a senior scientist, a missile expert and a chemical engineer without the presence of Iraqi witnesses. Their names were not released.
There was no comment from the three Iraqis who were interviewed, and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry simply reported the sessions without comment.
However, Sinan Abdel-Hassan, the biologist who gave the first interview on Thursday, told reporters he had agreed to talk of his own free will to deprive the United States of a pretext to attack his country.
Abdel-Hassan's name appeared on a list of about 400 scientists involved in past weapons programs submitted by Iraq to the United Nations in December. The United Nations believes the list is incomplete.
The Bush administration, which has threatened to disarm Iraq by force if it fails to comply with U.N. demands to surrender its alleged banned weapons, played down the significance of the interviews, pointing out that Abdel-Hassan works for the Iraqi unit responsible for dealing with inspectors.
"The only one they are interviewing without a minder is a minder," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But the U.N. inspectors appeared to regard the interviews as a sign of positive movement by the Iraqis under the intense pressure of a growing military buildup in the Persian Gulf region, and Secretary of State Colin Powell's indictment of Iraq at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
In response to Powell's presentation of evidence that Iraq is hiding banned weapons, Iraqi authorities took foreign reporters to two sites the secretary of state had mentioned.
One Iraqi site director, at a missile assembly installation, sounded puzzled at Powell's charge that the loading of a truck in his compound, photographed by a U.S. reconnaissance satellite, masked suspicious activity.
Karim Jabar Youssef said such shipments are an everyday occurrence at his plant on the Euphrates River, 35 miles south of Baghdad. "So any day Colin Powell can claim there is intense activity here," he said.
In his address to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Powell charged that such sites make Iraq a global threat. But U.N. officials say U.N. teams had repeatedly inspected some of the installations.
Arms investigators have not reported finding violations of U.N. bans on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official dismissed the press tour. He said Powell had made the point that Iraq hides what it is doing, making it difficult for even experienced monitors to detect illicit activity.
The Rasheed Co.'s missile assembly site at al-Musayyib was one of numerous Iraqi installations that Powell said posed threats. But he did not say U.N. teams have at least six of them under close watch.
Powell's presentation was intended to convince more council members that early military action may be necessary, because Iraq allegedly retains threatening amounts of chemical and biological arms and is developing missiles with ranges beyond the U.N.-authorized 90 miles.
At one point, he displayed a satellite photo labeled "10 Nov 2002" showing a large truck and missile and warhead canisters outside a workshop building at the Rasheed missile assembly site. He suggested this was a sign of Iraqi deception, two weeks before U.N. inspections resumed in Iraq.
"Why would Iraq suddenly move equipment of this nature before inspections?" he asked.
But Youssef, the incredulous site director, said that "on any day there would be constant activity," that is, shipments of parts and finished missiles. On Friday, a similar truck sat near the photographed location, along with missiles, canisters and missile components waiting for transfer.
Youssef said that the U.N. inspectors have visited the al-Musayyib location 10 times since November. The short-range Fatah missiles there, legal under U.N. resolutions, bear U.N. inventory stickers, indicating recent visits. Inspectors have not reported any violations at the site.
Convinced that the Iraqis are simply playing for time, the United States and Britain have began lobbying for support for another resolution that would be ready by the time Blix and ElBaradei present their next report to the council on Feb. 14.
However, France, Russia and Germany oppose a new resolution, fearing it would be a trigger for war, and instead are urging an extension and expansion of the inspection program.
Nevertheless, there were signs that war may be nearing. A U.S. official said in Washington that the State Department was preparing to advise nonessential U.S. diplomats and family members to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, a U.S. official said.
Also expected was a travel warning advising Americans to stay away from Iraq.
In Warsaw, the Polish Foreign Ministry said that its Baghdad embassy had "temporarily" suspended its small section handling U.S. interests here in place of the closed U.S. Embassy.
Inspectors in the 1990s oversaw destruction of the bulk of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, and dismantled Baghdad's unsuccessful program to build nuclear bombs. Inspection teams returned Nov. 27 to search for leftover arms and ensure that such programs were not restarted during their four-year absence.