UNITED NATIONS -- Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix ordered Iraq on Friday to destroy dozens of its missiles with ranges that violate U.N. limits, and gave Baghdad a March 1 deadline to begin the demolition.
His demand that Iraq eliminate the Al Samoud 2 missile system will test Baghdad's willingness to disarm as negotiations for possible war enter a crucial stage. Washington has strongly pushed for the destruction of the missiles and all their components.
The United States and Britain are trying to focus the world's attention on illegal Iraqi weapons activities while they prepare a new U.N. resolution that could pave the way for military action. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought support for the resolution from foreign ministers of four Security Council nations Friday.
Iraq's decision will likely be a factor in whether the council approves such a resolution, which is expected to be introduced early next week. Washington's goal is to achieve a minimum nine votes on the council, while avoiding a veto by France, Russia or China. All three of those permanent members are opposed to war and want to extend the weapons searches.
The order to destroy the Al Samoud 2 missiles confronts the Iraqi government with a serious dilemma: whether to give up a valuable weapons system its military would almost certainly use against a U.S.-led coalition, or refuse to comply and face accusations that it is not cooperating with U.N. inspectors.
In a four-page letter, Blix told Iraq to hand over to inspectors "for verifiable destruction" all Al Samoud 2 missiles and warheads, SA-2 missile engines configured for use in those missiles, machinery to produce missile motors, and other components. He also ordered that fuel, launchers, testing equipment and all software and documentation about the Al Samoud program be destroyed -- but not the factories where the missiles were built as the United States wanted.
"The appropriate arrangements should be made so that the destruction process can commence by March 1, 2003," Blix said in the letter to Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, an adviser to President Saddam Hussein. By no coincidence, March 1 is also the date of Blix's next report on Iraqi compliance is due to the Security Council.
Blix handed the letter, plus the findings of an independent panel of experts, to Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri at U.N. headquarters, where they met for more than an hour Friday.
There was no immediate response from Iraq to the letter.
But earlier Friday, Mohammed Modhaffar al-Adhami, a member of Iraq's parliament, said he believed Iraq would destroy the missiles if so ordered.
"Iraq will do the maximum in its cooperation to avoid any aggression ... even (destroying) the missiles," al-Adhami told The Associated Press in Baghdad.
Iraq maintains that some Al Samouds traveled beyond the 93-mile limit set by the Security Council after the 1991 Gulf War because they were tested without warheads or guidance systems, which made them lighter.
Al-Douri reiterated Friday that Iraq wants U.N. technical experts to come to Iraq to see that the missiles can't exceed the limit, and not rely on "a written paper, a theoretical report."
But in the letter, Blix said Iraq had increased the diameter of the Al-Samoud in violation of a 1994 order from the previous U.N. inspectors, and that computer simulations in four countries and the international panel of experts agreed that the missile exceeded the limit. A larger diameter means the missile has the potential to travel farther.
As a result, he said, there is no need "for further clarification or testing" and "all Al Samoud 2 missiles and associated items" should be presented to inspectors so they can verify their destruction.
"The necessary destruction is to be carried out by Iraq under" U.N. guidance and supervision, Blix wrote. The inspectors "will select from a variety of methods of destruction, depending on items to be destroyed, such as explosive demolition, crushing, melting, and other physical and chemical methods."
Stepping up the pressure on Saddam, Blix was also preparing a list of more than 35 outstanding issues surrounding Iraq's disarmament that he will present to his advisory board of commissioners when they meet on Monday at U.N. headquarters.
The list won't be included in his March 1 report but he will likely be asked about it when he addresses the council, probably on March 7. U.S. officials have said they would be paying close attention to the list, which could serve as a barometer for what inspectors have and haven't gotten from Iraq.
The list is included some questions about Iraq's missile programs.
Iraq is allowed to have missiles up to 93 miles, which means it can hit neighboring Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and Jordan -- but not Israel. But some former inspectors insist the technology Iraq chose for the Al Samoud 2 was clearly intended to support missile systems with longer ranges.
David Kay, a chief nuclear weapons inspector after the Gulf War, said he believes the Al-Samoud tests indicate Iraq is developing missiles to go consistently beyond 93 miles.
"I think it is worrying," he said, noting that the former U.N. inspection team told the Iraqis in 1997 that the Al Samoud missiles they were then building would exceed the limit "and not to do it."
"They went ahead," Kay said. "The Iraqis understood that if the payload were lighter it would go further. They played the game from very early on."
Iraq had declared the results of the missile tests in its semiannual report to U.N. inspectors in October, and again in its 12,000-page weapons declaration on Dec. 7. It said that 13 of the 40 tests went beyond the 93-mile limit, once to 114 miles.
Diplomatic sources said Iraq declared 76 Al-Samouds in June 2002 and said some had been used for tests and component parts. But Iraq has continued to produce the missiles, and U.N. inspectors now estimate they have between 100 and 120, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last week, Blix told the Security Council that the panel of international experts also concluded that casting chambers that previous inspectors destroyed -- but Iraq rebuilt -- could still be used to produce motors for banned Badr-2000 missiles capable of ranges "significantly greater" than 93 miles. He ordered their destruction.
In January, Blix reported that despite an arms embargo, Iraq had imported 380 SA-2 missile engines for the Al Samoud 2 as well as chemicals used in propellants, test instruments, and guidance and control systems. He ordered those configured for use in the Al Samoud 2 to be destroyed, but gave no number.
The experts said they needed more data on another missile, the Al Fatah, which Iraq also reported had gone beyond the limit in some tests. Blix's letter said he will be asking Iraq for this information.