BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq is stepping up a public relations efforts to convince the world a U.S. military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein is unwarranted, most recently escorting journalists to a dusty laboratory to prove it wasn't a biological weapons center.
Iraqi officials say the facility is a livestock vaccination laboratory.
The reclusive Iraqi leader also recently summoned a visiting British member of parliament, George Galloway, for a meeting in an underground bunker. Galloway, a frequent visitor to Baghdad and critic of U.S. and British policies toward Iraq, wrote about the meeting in an article published in the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday.
Iraq accused an engineer who fled the country, Adnan Saeed al-Haidari, and unidentified others of making false claims about the alleged weapons site to the CIA.
"Some Iraqis who escaped Iraq from abroad are saying that this site ... is producing biological agents," said Husam Mohammed Ameen, director-general of the group responsible for coordinating with U.N. weapons inspectors when they were in Iraq.
Ameen said that Al-Haidari, who once worked with a military industrial company in Baghdad, "is lying to the CIA. ... He was motivated by our enemies."
A sign at the entrance to the laboratory, which Iraqi officials say was closed By U.N. inspectors in 1996, reads "General Establishment for Animal Development."
Inside, dusty bottles and tubes were scattered on the floor and equipment appeared broken and dusty. Monitoring cameras said to have been installed by the U.N. inspectors were still mounted on the walls, though not functioning since inspectors departed in 1998. Baghdad has barred them from returning.
Iraq claims the site was dismantled and wrecked by U.N. weapons inspectors who had been monitoring it before they left.
Ameen reiterated Iraq's claim it is not hiding any weapons of mass destruction.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
The return of inspectors is a key demand of the council, and especially of the United States, which has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its weapons programs and of supporting terrorism. President Bush, who has called for Saddam's ouster, has threatened unspecified consequences if inspectors are not allowed to return and U.S. officials are talking openly about a new war with Iraq.
Most U.S. allies, both in Europe and the Arab world, are cool to launching an attack on Iraq. Even Britain, seen as Washington's strongest ally, may not be inclined to commit forces, a close political ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair told The Times for Monday's edition.
"While the prime minister will not want to weaken in any sense on the stance he has taken, naturally he will not commit Britain to engaging in military action unless and until it is clear that that is the best option available and political and public opinion has been prepared to support it," former Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, Saddam reached out Thursday to British lawmaker Galloway — one of his few defenders among Western politicians. After many stops in a car with curtained windows, Galloway said in a column published Sunday that he was eventually escorted into a nondescript building and descended in an elevator to a "tastefully lit" room with fresh flowers where Saddam waited.
Galloway wrote that Saddam spoke of Iraqi confusion as to why Britain "turned against us more than any other European country," and of Iraq's readiness to fight invaders "on the streets, from the rooftops, from house to house."
"We will never surrender," he quoted Saddam as saying.
He said Saddam told him Iraq "accepted and would implement" all U.N. Security Council resolutions, but gave no further details.
Baghdad, however, has insisted the U.N. Security Council reply to 19 political and technical questions it posed in March, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week that Iraq hasn't shown any flexibility in resolving the standoff over weapons inspectors. The issue wasn't raised in Galloway's column.
Iraq has invited U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to meetings in Baghdad to determine how to resolve outstanding disarmament issues before inspectors return.
But Annan and Security Council members insist Iraq must follow a 1999 council resolution requiring inspectors to visit Iraq and then determine within 60 days what questions Iraq still must answer about its weapons.