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Britain - Missile program may be 'serious breach' of resolution
UNITED NATIONS -- Iraq may have committed a "serious breach" with a missile that experts determined can fly beyond a U.N.-imposed range, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday. Iraq denied the missile violates U.N. resolutions.
The missile finding could provide new ammunition for the U.S. case for military action when the badly divided U.N. Security Council debates how to go forward on Iraq. That will likely take place sometime after the chief weapons inspectors present a crucial assessment of Baghdad's cooperation on Friday.
Russia insisted the missile report supports its stance that inspectors be given more time, rather than turning to war. The finding shows inspectors are succeeding in uncovering good information and that Iraq is cooperating, since it reported the missile systems, Russia's deputy foreign minister said.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said it is now up to chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to recommend what to do about the violation.
In London, Blair, who is President Bush's staunchest ally against Iraq, said that if the report was correct, "that is a significant breach of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441."
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz dismissed the finding, saying "there is no serious violation."
"It should not be exaggerated. We are still within the limits" set by the United Nations, he told reporters as he arrived in Rome for three days of talks, including a session with Pope John Paul II.
Aziz said the missiles were short-range and do not have a guidance system. Without the weight of a guidance system, a missile may fly as much as 10 miles beyond its normal range, he said. "That is not very dangerous."
Aziz told France-2 television that Iraqi missiles could not reach Israel, as they did during the 1991 Gulf War, when dozens of Scuds missiles hit Israel.
"We don't have the means to attack Israel that we had in 1991," Aziz told "We aren't a threat to anyone."
The shortest distance between two countries is 195 miles -- from the northern tip of Iraq's western border to the sea of Galilee.
A team of missile experts met at U.N. headquarters on Monday and Tuesday to examine data on Iraq's al-Samoud 2 and al-Fatah missile systems.
The experts found that the al-Samoud 2, a liquid propellant "mini-Scud" ballistic missile, went beyond the 93-mile limit imposed by the Security Council after the 1991 Gulf War, Negroponte and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said Wednesday night.
According to council diplomats, Blix reported last month that there had been 40 tests of the al-Samoud 2, and it went beyond the maximum permitted range 13 times, once to 114 miles.
The experts found no problems with the al-Fatah, though they said inspectors should seek further information. The experts also confirmed a report by Blix last month that casting chambers refurbished by Iraq could produce engines for missiles capable of flying much farther than 93 miles, according to diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Fedotov said the experts' finding shows inspections are working, since Iraq declared both missile systems in its semiannual report in October and in its 12,000-page weapons declaration in December.
"If experts take a decision that this is something Iraq should not have, they have ... to destroy the missiles. That should be considered not as a violation, but precisely as an example of cooperation of Iraq, and example of effectiveness of inspections," he said.
Douglas Richardson, editor of Jane's Missiles and Rockets, said Iraq reported to the United Nations in March that "a couple of their missiles had been tested beyond that range" to just over 112 miles.
Exceeding the range limit offers Iraq little military advantage, Richardson said. Even with the lightest possible warhead, the al-Samouds would have nowhere near the reach of the Scud missiles used to attack Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
Blix refused to comment Wednesday on the experts' findings, saying, "I will tell the Security Council on Friday."
Meanwhile, the United States and Britain disagreed on whether Iraq's recent acceptance of reconnaissance flights by American U-2, French Mirage and Russian Antonov aircraft came with unacceptable conditions.
Iraq wants to know the timing, point of entry, speed, and call sign of the reconnaissance flights.
U.S. officials say the demands go beyond conditions for reconnaissance flights by the previous inspectors. "This is completely unacceptable," said U.S. spokesman Richard Grenell.
But Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said his team had spoken to Blix's experts, who reported that the Iraqi conditions are "pretty well the same" as those for past inspections, "and that will be OK for the United Kingdom."
Bush has warned that Iraq has squandered its final opportunity to disarm peacefully and "the game is over." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that work has begun on a resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.
The report by Blix and top nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei on Friday is expected to figure heavily in the debate over war. Russia, France and China want inspections to continue to peacefully disarm Iraq.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Wednesday that Russia could use its Security Council veto to block the use of force.
"We have used this right in the past. We will use it again," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.