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U.N. inspectors visit missile sites, tag components

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.N. weapons inspectors visited five sites involved in the production of a banned missile Tuesday as rockets became a new flashpoint in the Iraq crisis.

The United Nations is deciding whether to insist that Iraq modify the missiles or destroy them -- a demand Saddam Hussein would likely find hard to meet.

Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, was asked Tuesday night what Iraq would do if told to destroy the missiles. He refused to answer, saying the question was too hypothetical.

The U.N. inspectors said Tuesday they have put identification tags on components of dozens of Al Samoud 2 missiles, but wouldn't say how many more remain to be inventoried. It remained unclear what they will do with the missiles they find.

"We are waiting for further instruction from New York," said a spokesman for the inspection teams in Baghdad, Hiro Ueki.

U.N. officials have banned the missiles because they have been tested at ranges greater than the 94-mile limit imposed on Iraq by U.N. resolutions adopted at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Giving up the Al Samoud 2 would mean sacrificing an important part of Iraq's defenses just as tens of thousands of U.S. and British troops mass on its southern border. But refusing to do so could give Iraq's enemies arguments to launch a war.

During a visit to Baghdad in January, chief inspector Hans Blix said the Iraqis suggested that when they fitted guidance and control systems and other devices to the missiles, they would be weighed down and fly within the legal distance.

Iraq was having trouble meeting another U.N. demand: encouraging scientists involved in weapons programs to grant private interviews to inspectors from UNMOVIC, the U.N. Monitoring and Observation Commission.

Ueki said only three of 30 scientists invited since the inspectors returned to Iraq in November have been willing to talk without a tape recorder -- a condition the UNMOVIC inspectors insist on because they believe it will make the scientists more candid.

The three scientists who gave interviews were suggested by the Iraqi government -- not requested independently by the U.N. team, Ueki said.

Denounced interview

A separate team of U.N. nuclear inspectors has conducted more interviews but allowed the scientists to record them. On Monday, those inspectors interviewed Saad Ahmed Mahmoud, deputy director-general of the al-Rasheed Co., which makes rocket motors and infantry rockets.

On Tuesday, Mahmoud denounced the interview, calling it unjustified because it "came from a political decision imposed by the United States."

Ueki said the resumption of U-2 flights on Monday signaled that Iraq's cooperation with the inspectors was improving. An American U-2 spy plane made its first flight over Iraq after the United Nations gave Iraq 48 hours notice.

Ueki wouldn't say whether the United Nations also gave Iraq other requested details of the flight, as it had under a former inspections regime in the 1990s, but said: "The conditions are very similar."

Agreeing to allow the U-2 flights fulfilled a major demand by the U.N. inspectors, who returned to Iraq in November after a four-year break. Baghdad asserts that it is fully cooperating with them.

The United States and Britain accuse Saddam of concealing weapons of mass destruction. They planned to press this week for a Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq, according to U.S. and British diplomats.

The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they expected the negotiations to be wrapped up by the time Blix delivers his next report on Iraq -- March 1.


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