NEW YORK – With war looming in Iraq, U.N. nuclear inspectors are accelerating their hunt for any shred of evidence that Baghdad has an atomic weapons program, the top nuclear inspector said Saturday.
"We've been pushing the gas pedal as much as we can," Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press before boarding a flight from New York to Vienna, Austria, where the IAEA is based.
"We will continue the work until we're told to stop."
Although ElBaradei told the Security Council on Friday that three months of aggressive inspections have failed to uncover any evidence that Saddam Hussein has revived his nuclear program, ElBaradei told the AP he still hopes for another two or three months to be more certain.
That could be unlikely as the United States continues pressing for military action and building up forces in the Gulf region. But ElBaradei, noting the deep divisions in the council over whether to give inspectors more time or use force to disarm Iraq, said he believed there still was a chance for continued weapons checks.
Even if the inspectors pull out, they will seek to return as quickly as possible to continue monitoring Iraqi disarmament, ElBaradei said.
"We'd like to remain in Iraq for a very long time to make sure we didn't miss anything," he said. "Being on the ground is particularly important with a nation like Iraq, which in the past has shown such deceit. There's always a degree of risk and uncertainty."
In whatever time the IAEA has left, its inspectors will press Baghdad to arrange interviews with nuclear scientists outside Iraq, ElBaradei said.
"It's a good test of Iraqi cooperation," he said. "It's an opportunity to show they have nothing to hide. If they have nothing to hide, they should reassure their scientists that they can serve their country" by agreeing to private interviews outside Iraq.
Meanwhile, the chief nuclear inspector said he was monitoring events closely to determine if -- and when -- his inspectors might have to leave Iraq. U.N. officials said they could begin withdrawing inspectors within 48 hours if war becomes imminent.
Because the inspectors have fanned out across Iraq, they could be among the first to detect signs of an invasion in the making, ElBaradei said.
"If we know there will be an armed operation, it's our duty to alert the council, and it's our responsibility to ensure the safety of our people is intact," he said.
If war erupts, ElBaradei said, the world at least will know there were no signs of a developing nuclear program.
"The fact that we know Iraq does not have nuclear (weapons) is in itself a big relief," he said.