VIENNA, Austria – The head of a U.N. weapons inspection team banned by Baghdad said Friday that satellite photos of Iraq show unexplained construction at sites the team used to visit in its search for evidence that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear arms.
Jacques Baute did not offer details about the construction or the sites, and he and other U.N. inspections experts emphasized that no conclusions on whether Iraq had restarted nuclear weapons programs could be deduced from the images.
"We can't draw any conclusions from a new building or a new road," said Mark Gwozdecky, a spokesman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. agency that oversees inspections of nuclear programs.
However, the White House expressed concern, and independent experts said the images were a worrisome indication of how little control the outside world has over potentially lethal developments in Iraq since Baghdad banned outside inspectors four years ago.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the photos could indicate the Iraqi president "may seek to develop nuclear weapons and may be making progress." He called the agency's comments "troubling."
Independent Iraq analysts said while the existence of such images was common U.S. government knowledge, the photos would be welcomed by the Bush administration as it seeks to wear down worldwide resistance to the idea of toppling Saddam by force.
"I think that this is basically a preview of ... the type of information that the U.S. government is going to be using to make the case for doing something about Iraq," said John Pike, of the nonprofit group GlobalSecurity.org, based in Alexandria, Va.
The last U.N. inspectors pulled out of Iraq in December 1998, ahead of bombing by the United States and Britain. But even though Baghdad has refused to let U.N. teams looking for nuclear or other prohibited weapons programs back in since then, monitoring has continued through satellite photography and other intelligence gathering.
Baute, a French physicist and leader of the U.N. nuclear inspection team, said in a telephone interview that reviews of commercial satellite images since 1999 show "some buildings that have been reconstructed ... and some new buildings (that) have been erected" at sites its team visited before the ban.
Without identifying them, Baute described the sites as having potential "dual-use capabilities," meaning they could potentially be locations for both civilian and military nuclear programs.
In a related development, a report made available to The Associated Press on Friday and drawn up by Hans Blix, chief inspector of the team assigned to look for chemical and biological weapons, said Iraq has not been reporting to the United Nations its "dual-use" imported goods -- items that can be used in peaceful and military nuclear programs.
In the absence of inspections, Blix said, the U.N. commission is stepping up other ways of monitoring Iraq -- including investigating new sources for commercial satellite imagery and seeking more photos from governments on activities and changes at suspected weapons sites.
The United States has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its banned weapons programs and of supporting terrorism, and has called for Saddam's ouster.
In seeking international support for a military strike on Iraq, the Bush administration contends Saddam's pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in defiance of his disarmament pledge after the Gulf War is a powerful case for a regime change.
Facing opposition from traditional allies to such an attack, Bush has scheduled consultations with heads of countries sitting on the U.N. Security Council to establish whether new U.N. pressure can be brought to bear that would force Baghdad to again allow weapons inspectors in.
On Friday, Bush telephoned leaders of China, Russia and France. Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said the president stressed that "Saddam Hussein was a threat and that we need to work together to make the world peaceful."
Bush was scheduled to meet Saturday with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the only major U.S. ally supporting Saddam's ouster through military means. In comments broadcast Friday, Blair reiterated his backing, saying Britain was prepared to shed blood to support the United States.
But other traditional allies remained defiant. A large delegation from Turkey arrived in Baghdad on Friday, just a day after Arab states declared their allegiance to Iraq and called U.S. threats against Saddam threats against the whole Arab world.
The U.S. administration is likely to ask the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution setting a deadline for Iraq to admit weapons inspectors or risk punitive action.
Officials of the Vienna-based U.N. agency declined to give details about the sites or when the images were taken, saying only that satellite photos of previously inspected areas were continually being upgraded.
But Gary Napier of Space Imaging in Thornton, Colo. -- one of the companies on contract with the U.N. inspection agency -- said his company's satellite photos are able to provide close-up details of objects a little larger than a yard, as long as the backdrop is a contrasting color. He said a single image covers an area nearly seven miles in length.
Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, said the images from Iraq will not provide "a smoking gun image that clearly ... shows they're working on atomic bombs."
"What we are going to see is a lot of buildings with a lot of locations associated with their (suspected) missile program or their nuclear program, and these buildings have either been rebuilt or continue to be used," he said.
"All of it proves that they have a lot of facilities where you would suspect they would be working on prohibited weapons."