WASHINGTON – Democrats clashed with Republicans and among themselves in their assessments of the latest U.N. weapons inspection briefing at the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., did not want to hear chief inspector Hans Blix plead for more U.N. arms inspections in Iraq. He said he thought Blix should be given more time, without argument.
"No one has suggested that they be pulled out, so it seems to me that it's critical that we continue to allow them to do their job," Daschle said.
But after Blix spoke -- in which he told the U.N. Security Council that inspectors had not found weapons of mass destruction, "only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed" -- a leading Democratic senator questioned the inspections' value from the get-go.
"The part of the Blix remarks--and it may have been taken out of context -- that I thought was really wrong and outrageous was where he said, 'We've had no evidence that the Iraqis have been hiding evidence at sites we've come to inspect.' But the sad fact is that the United Nations gave the Iraqis about two months notice that we were going to, that the inspectors were coming," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a possible presidential nominee.
Blix reported that more than 200 chemical and 100 biological munitions or items had been found and destroyed and Iraq still has not accounted for a lot of prohibited materials.
Like Daschle, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pleaded for more inspections, saying in a statement "The [Bush] Administration has never embraced the U.N. inspections... many, if not most, of the members of the U.N. Security Council believe that continuing inspections can be useful and that it is premature to decide to use force in Iraq. We should care... about the opinion of mankind."
Yet Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews of New Jersey, a member of the new Homeland Security Committee, like Lieberman, dismissed the Blix report.
"I think that the report of the U.N. weapons inspectors was surreal. We know that there's anthrax and smallpox in this country. We know that the country's the size of California. We know that there is a 13-year history of the Iraqis concealing the presence of these weapons," Andrews said.
Republicans stuck closer together than Democrats, who have historically been more hesitant about military force against Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., set the day's tone before Blix spoke.
"I think that Saddam Hussein, unless he turns around shortly, it is almost inevitable, unless he turns around and disarms, that there will be military action," he said.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer offered spin control after the Security Council meeting, in which Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Spain diplomatically concealed utter disbelief at Security Council complacence.
Fleischer rejected the suggestion that U.S. war plans had hit a "brick wall of opposition" at the United Nations.
"I think that's a rather over-dramatic interpretation of what you've heard from New York today," Fleischer said. "I think the report from Hans Blix this morning was, you know, very diplomatic with its bottom line being that the world has no confidence that Saddam Hussein has disarmed, and that's what this is about.
One Democratic senator, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, said after the Blix report, a "small glimmer of hope" remains that Saddam will disarm peaceably.
But Rockefeller added that if he does not, the United States cannot allow "some UN members" who are not "sincerely committed" to that goal "to block the defense of our national security."
Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.