UNITED NATIONS – Experts have concluded that Iraq's al-Samoud 2 missiles can travel beyond the 93-mile limit allowed under U.N. resolutions, a capability that the United States calls a serious violation.
Members of the U.N. Security Council offered differing interpretations of the findings, however, with Russia saying they proved that U.N. inspectors are turning up good information about Iraq's weapons and should be allowed to continue working.
The United States and Britain, its closest ally, also disagreed on whether Iraq's recent acceptance of reconnaissance flights by American U-2, French Mirage and Russian Antonov aircraft came with unacceptable conditions.
The missile and U-2 issues are almost certain to be used by the United States during debate in the badly divided U.N. Security Council. That showdown is expected sometime after top weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei present their latest assessment of Iraq's cooperation to council members on Friday.
Iraq wants to know the timing, point of entry, speed, and call sign of the reconnaissance flights. U.S. officials say that violates the latest U.N. resolution, which puts no conditions on inspections.
They say the demands even go beyond the conditions for reconnaissance flights by the previous inspectors. "This is completely unacceptable," said U.S. spokesman Richard Grenell.
But Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said his team had spoken to Blix's experts, who reported that the Iraqi conditions are "pretty well the same" as those for past inspections, "and that will be OK for the United Kingdom."
On the missile issue, experts met at U.N. headquarters on Monday and Tuesday to examine Iraq's al-Samoud 2 and al-Fatah systems. The missiles in some tests exceeded the maximum range allowed under Security Council resolutions in place since the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte and Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said the experts found that the al-Samoud 2 went beyond the 93-mile limit, though Fedotov said this wasn't a final conclusion.
Council diplomats said the experts recommended that inspectors ask the Iraqis for more technical information about the al-Fatah. The experts also confirmed a report by Blix last month that casting chambers refurbished by Iraq could produce motors for missiles capable of flying much farther than 93 miles, according to the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Blix refused to comment Wednesday on the experts' findings, saying "I will tell the Security Council on Friday."
A finding that the al-Samoud program violates Iraq's disarmament obligations could provide new ammunition to the U.S. case for military action against Iraq. But Fedotov said it shows that inspections are working, since Iraq declared both missile systems in its semiannual report in October and in its 12,000-page weapons declaration in December.
"If experts take a decision that this is something Iraq should not have, they have ... to destroy the missiles. That should be considered not as a violation, but precisely as an example of cooperation of Iraq, and example of effectiveness of inspections," he said.
President Bush has warned that Iraq has squandered its final opportunity to disarm peacefully and "the game is over." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that work has begun on a resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.
"We believe that Iraq has simply failed in every respect to cooperate sincerely with the inspection process," said Negroponte, the U.S. envoy.
Blix's report to the council on Friday is expected to figure heavily in the debate over war against Saddam Hussein. The United States and Britain face strong opposition from Russia, France and China who want inspections to continue to peacefully disarm Iraq.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, while in France on Wednesday, repeated a warning that Russia could use its veto in the Security Council to block the use of force.
"We have used this right in the past. We will use it again," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.