Iraq: What Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Arms inspectors exaggerated problems over progress in their pivotal reports to the U.N. Security Council, a senior Iraqi complained Tuesday. He said Baghdad would work on the problems, including scientists' rejection of private U.N. interviews.

On another issue -- U.N. reconnaissance overflights -- Lt. Gen. Amir Rashid said Iraq would allow them if the Security Council told Washington to ground its attack planes during such missions.

Diplomats said this was not a serious concession. With the United States and Britain, who are conducting the flights, both having veto power in the council, approval was highly unlikely.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said, "It's a matter for the United Nations to discuss." He said the United States intends to continue flying combat air patrols over Iraq to enforce the southern and northern "no fly" zones.

In Iraq's first detailed response to Monday's reports by chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, Rashid, a presidential adviser, said his government was cooperating with inspectors "with all our capacity" to show that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. He said it would do more as required.

The Blix-ElBaradei assessment set the stage for renewed debate among world governments about what to do in Iraq -- allow U.N. inspections to go on, or short-circuit what Blix calls "the peaceful route" and opt for war against Iraq, as threatened by Washington and London.

In the text of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush said Saddam Hussein has shown "utter contempt" for the world community and must be held to account. On Wednesday, the Security Council meets in New York with Blix and ElBaradei to discuss questions raised by council members about their reports.

In his report Monday, Blix said the Iraqis were cooperating by granting full access for inspectors, but said they'd failed to offer evidence to allay suspicions they retain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs. They seem not to have come to "genuine acceptance" of U.N. disarmament demands, he said.

In his meeting with reporters late Tuesday, Rashid objected to such judgments.

"We are cooperating with all our capacity, and if there is a demand for additional cooperation on some issue, here or there, we will do it," he said.

The general, a former military-industrial chief, complained that in the Blix-ElBaradei reports "there was no proportionate presentation of the facts. We see, for example, some facts amplified and magnified, on what are called problems ... while important points have been abbreviated."

One point that should have been stressed, he said, was that U.N. inspections, renewed two months ago after a four-year gap, have shown that allegations contained in U.S.-British intelligence reports late last year were "totally false."

Those reports suggested that U.N.-prohibited weapons activity may have been resumed at a dozen Iraqi "sites of concern." Inspections over the past two months have repeatedly covered these installations and no major violations of U.N. edicts have been reported.

On the subject of interviews, Rashid said that under an agreement reached Jan. 20 with Blix and ElBaradei, Baghdad officials were encouraging Iraqi scientists to submit to private interviews, with no Iraqi monitors present. But "all of them, they demanded a representative from (the government) or a friend or colleague as witnesses," he said.

The U.N. Baghdad spokesman, Hiro Ueki, said Tuesday that 16 Iraqi specialists have refused U.N. requests thus far to grant unmonitored interviews. He said the inspectors consider such interviews an "important tool," believing knowledgeable scientists would be more candid without government officials listening in.

"This is a very sensitive issue," Rashid said. "Who can protect the rights of such scientists? This idea of having a witness present was an idea to protect the rights of those people."

But of U.N. dissatisfaction, he said, "On this issue we are ready to study with them. It isn't a real problem."

Blix also complained about Iraq's reluctance to allow U.N. reconnaissance flights using American U-2 spy planes. The Iraqi general countered that Baghdad has not ruled out U-2 flights, but fears their unannounced flight plans might confuse Iraqi air defenses on guard against U.S. and British air patrols in the U.S.-declared "no fly zones" of northern and southern Iraq.

Those warplanes regularly attack Iraqi ground targets in those zones.

The Security Council should instruct the United States and Britain not to launch warplanes during U-2 flights, Rashid said.

Blix told Associated Press Television News on Tuesday that Iraq went beyond asking for the skies to be cleared during his talks in Baghdad on Jan. 19-20, asking inspectors to support the installation of radar equipment at Mosul and Basra, where they are opening offices.

He said he offered Iraq the same conditions that U-2 flights conducted by the previous inspectors operated under -- notification of a window of time during which the flights would take place.