Blix: No Breakthroughs, But New 'Positive Attitude' by Iraq

With more Iraqi documents and new ideas for tracking old weapons, the chief U.N. inspectors said they sense a "good beginning" and a "positive attitude" in Baghdad toward their efforts of ensuring Iraq is free of banned arms.

In their two days of talks here, however, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei did not win immediate agreement, as expected, for U-2 reconnaissance flights over Iraq. In Washington, President Bush said there would be no more "hide-and-seek" with Iraq.

The Baghdad meetings that ended Sunday were a prelude to crucial reports the two chief inspectors will give to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, new assessments of Iraqi cooperation that will help the council decide on next steps in the months-long Iraq crisis.

The inspectors flew to Larnaca, Cyprus on Monday and changed planes for Athens. U.N. officials said ElBaradei was to fly to Vienna and Blix was to fly to New York.

The Iraqis gave the chief inspectors more documents to try to clarify lingering questions about 1980s chemical and biological weapons, and said they would establish commissions to search for additional documents and any leftover weapons.

"I'm beginning to see some positive attitude," Blix told The Associated Press at the end of the talks.

"We are leaving with a sense of cautious optimism," ElBaradei said. "We see a very good beginning, and would like to see much more in the coming weeks."

The U.S. and British governments contend that Iraq retains chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs prohibited by U.N. resolutions, and threaten a military strike if, in the U.S. view, it hasn't disarmed sufficiently.

In China, the government said Monday it is withdrawing some staff from its embassy in Iraq.

As tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel train in the Persian Gulf region for possible war, Bush told U.S. congressional Republicans at a policy conference that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "wants the world to think that hide-and-seek is a game that we should play. And it's over."

Bush said it's a "moment of truth for the United Nations."

But the majority of the Security Council wants something short of a U.N. authorization for war against Iraq sought by the Bush administration. That sentiment against military action was expressed again Sunday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country holds veto power on the council.

"We are convinced that efforts for a peaceful resolution of the situation regarding Iraq should be persistently continued," Putin said after talks in Berlin with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, who also opposes the military route.

The Security Council banned Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and longer-range missiles after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. During the 1990s, U.N. inspectors oversaw destruction of the great bulk of chemical and biological weapons, and dismantled Iraq's program to build nuclear bombs.

The U.N. experts resumed inspections last Nov. 27, after a four-year gap, to certify that Iraq has no leftover weapons and did not restart the arms programs during the U.N. absence.

Blix had complained in a Security Council report last month that the Iraqis were not cooperating on "substance," and had not cleared up questions about VX nerve agent, anthrax and some other doomsday weapons developed in the 1980s. Iraq has not documented all its reported destruction of VX, for example.

At a news conference after Sunday's sessions, Blix and ElBaradei reported receiving documents — the Iraqis said there were 24 in all — offering "explanations," if not hard evidence, regarding outstanding issues on anthrax, VX nerve gas and Iraqi missile development. Blix said the documents would have to be studied by his experts.

The Iraqis also told the inspection chiefs they would establish two commissions, one to search for any leftover weapons or components nationwide, and the other to track down any more relevant documents.

Blix had suggested an Iraqi weapons commission with a broad mandate after Baghdad set up a more narrow inquiry to hunt down any 122 mm rocket warheads for chemical agents. That search started after U.N. inspectors found a dozen such empty warheads at an Iraqi ammunition depot Jan. 16.

Blix said inspectors found another empty warhead on Sunday, bringing to 18 the number uncovered thus far.

The U.N. teams were out on their daily surprise inspections again Monday. Among other sites, they revisited the Ibn Firnas Company just north of Baghdad, which works on remotely piloted aircraft.

The chief inspectors had expected to clear away some remaining practical issues in their Baghdad talks. The Iraqis had balked at allowing the American U-2 spy planes to fly in support of U.N. inspections unless the United States and Britain suspended air patrols over northern and southern Iraq while the plane was aloft.

Presidential adviser Amer al-Saadi, the inspectors' Iraqi counterpart in the Baghdad talks, indicated to reporters Sunday that Iraq would acquiesce to the U-2 flights without attaching such conditions by the time the chief inspectors make their report on Friday.

"Iraq expects Blix and ElBaradei to be fair and tell the truth," al-Saadi said of that report. "There is nothing left that we hadn't provided an answer to, even trivialities."

Blix said, however, he wouldn't attach the word "breakthrough" to the talks, but rather "a beginning." Said ElBaradei, "As long as we are registering good progress, the Security Council will be willing to give us time."

In an editorial Monday, the Baghdad newspaper Babil said it hoped that in their next report the chief inspectors would "withstand the pressures of the United States — which wishes evil for all the world — to deprive the warmongers of their opportunity." Babil is owned by Saddam's son Odai.