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U.N. Inspectors Verify Iraqi Destruction of Biological Weapons

South African disarmament experts visiting Iraq said Thursday they are convinced Iraq is doing its best to disarm, and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to give weapons inspections more time to work before authorizing war.

Egypt's news agency, meanwhile, said Iraq would announce later Thursday that it will comply with a U.N. order to begin destroying its Al Samoud 2 missiles by the weekend.

There was no such comment from the Iraqi government, but the Egyptian Middle East News Agency quoted unidentified sources in Baghdad as saying the step was intended to deprive Washington of an excuse to attack.

"It's clear there is movement on the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction," South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, said at a news conference. "Clearly (the inspection regime) is working, and if it's working why stop it?"

The South African team has been in Baghdad since Sunday night to share its experience in verifiably destroying its programs to produce weapons of mass destruction. It was to leave Friday morning.

Pahad said he did not know why weapons inspectors have been so suspicious of Iraq's efforts to disarm. Inspectors at the time praised South Africa's voluntary destruction of weapons of mass destruction in the 1980s. He said only that there was little trust on either the U.N. or the Iraqi side.

"The Iraqi side has consistently told us that every time they move on an issue, the goal post gets changed," he said.

The issue of Iraq's Al Samoud missiles has become a litmus test of Iraq's will to comply, because international experts found some of the rockets tested traveled beyond the 93 mile maximum range set by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War.

Last Friday, chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix ordered Iraq to destroy the missiles starting at the end of this week.

U.N. weapons inspectors, meanwhile, returned to a pit near the town of al-Aziziya, 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, that Iraq opened in an effort to prove that it destroyed R-400 bombs containing biological weapons there in 1991, Iraq said.

The inspectors took samples from metal fragments at the site to check whether they did come from destroyed biological weapons.

Another team of inspectors helped Iraqi workers drill holes in 155mm artillery shells filled with mustard gas that Iraq reported to the inspectors, Iraq said. They planned to complete the shells' destruction on Thursday.

The inspectors also visited a medicine factory, an electronics plant and made an unexpected stop at a computer shop, searching files and computers for 90 minutes. A neighbor asked: "Why are they doing this? It's just a computer shop."

Wednesday night, Iraq announced that two French Mirage reconnaissance planes flew over the country in support of U.N. weapons inspections for the first time. Three American U-2 spy planes -- which fly at higher altitudes than the Mirage -- have already made similar runs.

In New York, Blix delivered a 17-page report to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will send it to the Security Council. The report will be influential in a council debate over a U.S.-British-Spanish resolution that would authorize war.

The contents of the report were not immediately made public, but Blix indicated that while Iraqi cooperation was improving, it did not represent "full cooperation or a breakthrough."

Nonetheless, he noted that inspections resumed only in November after a four-year break and asked: "Is it the right time to close the door?"

The United States and Britain accuse Iraq of failing to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding it give up all weapons of mass destruction. President Bush said Wednesday that Saddam must be disarmed by force if he doesn't disarm himself, though he didn't say what would convince him that Iraq is disarming.

"In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world, and we will not allow it," Bush said.

Bush also said deposing Saddam could begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and democracy, including progress toward "the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, speaking to reporters Thursday on the sidelines of an Arab League foreign minister's meeting in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, had a one-line response to Bush's speech: "He is a reckless, obsessed person."

Saddam, his son Qusai, the defense minister and the minister of military industries all met with fighters and military researchers, the official Iraqi News Agency said. The fighters and researchers told the president they wouldn't let him down, it said.

"They affirmed they are standing firm behind his wise leadership in confronting the evils of the evil, and to prevent harm upon Iraq," INA said.

INA reported that Saddam met Wednesday night with the governors of Iraq's 18 provinces and told them to give their citizens a message: "They have to dig trenches in their gardens."

The governors said they had completed preparations "to confront the invaders," the news agency said, forming "jihad groups of clerics and tribesmen to fight the invaders, and commando units to hunt helicopters."