WASHINGTON – The Bush administration adopted a wait-and-see stance Thursday in response to the discovery of 11 empty chemical warheads at an ammunition dump in Iraq.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration was assessing the information out of Baghdad and would be deliberate about reacting to it.
Another spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the administration was "aware of the reports and we look forward to receiving information from the inspectors." McClellan, who accompanied the president on a trip to Scranton, Pa., would not comment on how significant the find was.
The 122mm shells are the same type as were discovered by U.N. inspectors in October 1991 at an Iraqi munitions storage depot near Khamisiyah. At that time, inspectors found 297 mostly-intact 122mm rockets containing the nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin in an excavated area.
In February and March 1992, the U.N. inspectors found and destroyed 463 122mm rockets at Khamisiyah, which the inspectors described as "fully-, partially- and un-filled rockets."
The revelations came as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was lamenting the inability of Congress to approve money to pay the multibillion-dollar cost for the buildup of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.
The Bush White House has grown increasingly impatient with the pace of inspections under the supervision of the United Nations, and the president declared earlier this week that time was running out for Saddam Hussein to avoid war.
The weapons components found Thursday were not part of Iraq's declaration given to the U.N. in December, under which Baghdad was required to itemize its weapons of mass destruction.
"It was a discovery. They were not declared," Hiro Ueki, the spokesman for U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad, told The Associated Press. It happened as inspectors were scrutinizing bunkers built in the late 1990s.
Earlier, Rumsfeld called the refusal of Congress to pay bill for the military buildup was a "mistake" and said "we're robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's a terrible way to manage your affairs."
Over breakfast Thursday, a group of newly minted Republican senators gave him a sympathetic ear when Rumsfeld complained that Congress did not fulfill a Pentagon request last year to set aside $10 billion in emergency funds to pay for the accumulating costs of fighting the global war on terrorism.
Part of the fight against terrorists, Rumsfeld said, are preparations for possible war against Iraq.
"He needs some immediate help," said Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "His request for money is probably legitimate."
The expense of deploying forces to the Gulf is being met with funds intended for other purposes, Rumsfeld said Wednesday at a news conference.
"I think it was a mistake that we didn't have the $10 billion approved. We knew we were going to spend it," he added. "We knew the global war on terrorism wasn't going to go away, and yet it wasn't approved."
Iraq, meanwhile, has complained to the United Nations about a plan to use American spy planes to aid inspectors' search for illicit weapons, according to the top U.S. military officer.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that the administration had offered U-2s, which provide high-altitude surveillance, and Predator unmanned aircraft, which fly low and send live television images of surveillance targets to command posts on the ground.
So far the U.N.'s inspection arm has accepted only the offer of U-2s, Myers said, although none has flown yet.
"We're ready to go whenever they're ready to go," Myers said.
Myers said the Iraqi government had sent a letter to Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, complaining about the U-2 arrangement.
The Iraqis told Blix they "have a real problem with U-2s flying over central Iraq" because it would complicate the Iraqi air defense forces' mission of defending against U.S. and British fighter jets that periodically attack Iraqi military sites in the southern and northern "no fly" zones, which do not include the Baghdad area.
Myers did not say where the U-2s would be based. The planes, which would be flown with U.N. markings, have a long and storied record of high-altitude surveillance dating to the 1950s, when the United States wanted to discover the extent of the Soviet Union's strategic offensive capabilities before spy satellites were available. They also played a role in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union.