U.N. Inspectors Could Help Verify Iraq Weapons

U.N. inspectors, who want back into Iraq, could verify any weapons there that U.S. troops may find but they say they won't work under the Americans.

The Bush administration said one of the war's main missions was to rid Iraq of the weapons it believes Saddam was concealing. With U.S. troops controlling most of Iraq, Washington has all but replaced the U.N. inspections with its own search for banned Iraqi weapons.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations in February that U.S. intelligence proved Iraq had such weapons.

But on Thursday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that U.S. troops would need to rely on the Iraqis to find the weaponry.

"I don't think we'll discover anything, myself," Rumsfeld said. "I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something."

No one knows that better than chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, who came under heavy criticism at times from U.S. officials angered that he wasn't backing their position.

"We had credibility and we didn't lend it to their contentions, and I think that we were right and I think so far nothing has proved us wrong," Blix told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

The U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, led by Blix, pulled out of Iraq shortly before the war and after 3 months of work on the ground.

But U.S. officials, deeply skeptical of the U.N. teams, have said they wouldn't be welcome to return right now.

Now the search is being conducted by U.S. disarmament teams, made up of military specialists, scientists and former U.N. inspectors searching for the weapons Iraq was banned from having after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Only in the past few days, Rumsfeld said, have enough weapons searchers arrived in parts of Iraq where U.S. intelligence indicates chemical or biological weapons could be found.

"The teams have been trained in chain of control, really like a crime scene," he said. "That will not stop certain countries and certain types of people from claiming, inaccurately, that it was planted."

Such fears have been privately voiced by Security Council members such as Russia and France, which remain unconvinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Both countries want inspectors back in the field as soon as possible as does Secretary-General Kofi Annan who has said only U.N. inspectors -- and not the Americans -- have the legal authority to oversee Iraqi disarmament.

While the 74-year-old Blix seems eager to return his staff to Baghdad, he said he would wait for a nod from the Security Council.

"When American and British inspectors have been all over the country I would imagine they would like to tell us what they have seen and perhaps show us what they have seen. But we're not going to be dogs on a leash. We have a mandate from the Security Council, and credibility requires that we have independent judgment," he said.

As many as 1,000 people are believed to be involved in the U.S.-led effort compared to a little more than 100 U.N. inspectors who went to Iraq. Noting the sheer size of the American operation, Blix said he expected them to have a better chance at determining whether Iraq really was hiding weapons.

"They have so many more people, they are all over the place, they get tips from private individuals, they stumble upon ammunition storage so there is a good chance they will cover wide areas but they still have much to go to and haven't found anything yet."

Blix said he hasn't been in contact with Washington since the beginning of the war and that the only information he gets regarding the disarmament process is through media reports.

"We get a fair amount of information that way and we then compare with what we found on our visits."

He also cast doubt on reports that some of Iraq's weapons may have been moved to neighboring Syria.

"I'd like to see solid evidence that things have gone to Syria as we would like to see solid evidence of weapons in Iraq."

In the meantime, Blix is maintaining his team's readiness to return. He says they would need about two weeks notice and he plans to brief the Security Council next week on preparations he's making in case he's given the go-ahead.