BAGHDAD, Iraq – Inspectors confirmed Saturday that Iraq has begun destroying its Al Samoud 2 missiles. Iraq had said earlier in the day that it had destroyed four of the missiles and had agreed to a schedule to destroy the rest.
Deputy chief inspector Demetrius Perricos confirmed both statements and said at least one missile was completely destroyed but the process was going more slowly than expected because the rockets were so sturdy.
Perricos also said one of two casting chambers used to build the missiles had been removed, and Iraqi officials said it would be destroyed Sunday. Perricos said the timetable for destruction was "a matter of a few days or a very short few weeks."
The missiles are being destroyed as part of a U.N. injunction prohibiting missiles that fly beyond 93 miles. Iraq is believed to have about 120 of the banned missiles.
White House Still Skeptical
News of Iraq's planned destruction of more Al Samoud missiles was praised by governments opposed to war, but those advocating military action remain suspicious.
White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed the idea that the destruction reflected progress. "This is the deception the president predicted," he said.
He said President Bush expected Iraq to destroy some of its missiles, but won't settle for anything less than full disarmament.
U.S. analysts have expressed concern for the safety of the 225,000 troops deployed in the Persian Gulf region. They worry that if Iraq is still hiding chemical and biological weapons, it could load them on the Al Samoud 2 to target U.S. forces.
European governments reluctant to wage war were encouraged by Iraq's recent change of heart. The turnaround has led them to believe that weapons inspections have weakened Saddam Hussein's military capabilities.
"It is an important step in the process of the peaceful disarmament of Iraq," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said. "It confirms that inspectors are getting results."
Inspectors Head to Sites of Destroyed Biological Weapons
Meanwhile, U.N. weapons inspectors have begun to tour disposal sites where Iraq says it unilaterally destroyed biological weapons.
Inspectors returned Saturday to al-Aziziya, an abandoned helicopter airfield 60 miles southeast of Baghdad where Iraq says it destroyed R-400 bombs filled with biological weapons in 1991.
At the site, bulldozers moved mounds of earth to reveal rusty, dirt-caked warheads and bomb fragments, some as large as cars. Nearby, missiles bearing U.N. identification tags rusted in a parched field.
Odai al-Taie, head of the information department at Iraq's Information Ministry, said a team of U.N. weapons inspectors would also seize a mold used to make solid fuel at the Al Rasheed Company in order to prepare it for destruction on Sunday.
Interviews with Scientists Resumed
Ueki also announced that the inspectors had resumed interviews with Iraqi scientists, interviewing a biological weapons expert and a missile expert on Friday evening — the first such interviews since Feb. 7.
"This is positive news," Ueki said.
The inspectors say debriefing scientists who worked on Iraq's programs to build weapons of mass destruction is key to their mission: verifying whether Iraq, as it claims, has dismantled those programs.
U.N. Resolution Could be Affected by Destruction of Missiles
Next week Blix will address the deeply divided U.N. Security Council, which is considering a U.S.-led resolution that would authorize war against Iraq for not complying with the inspections. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would veto the U.S. resolution if needed to preserve "international stability."
But the council is also considering a French-led proposal to continue with inspections.
In a 13-page report delivered to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Blix was highly critical of Iraq's overall disarmament efforts in the last three months, calling them "very limited so far."
But the report was written before the two latest developments. Blix says these developments — both key demands of the weapons inspectors — were likely to affect his address to the U.N. Security Council next week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.