Inspectors call hot line after being barred from rooms

Saturday, December 14, 2002

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.N. teams were held up for two hours on Friday at a newly declared site -- an infectious diseases center -- forcing inspectors to use their hot line to higher Iraqi authorities for the first time since returning to the country last month.

The snag occurred as U.S. officials in Washington said Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration does not account for a number of missing chemical and biological weapons. The officials said it fails to explain attempted purchases of uranium and other items U.S. intelligence believes are related to Saddam Hussein's nuclear program.

At the United Nations, Security Council diplomats concurred the voluminous report contained little that was new, raising questions whether Iraq was truly committed to disarmament.

During inspections in Baghdad on Friday, a U.N. team got access to the Communicable Disease Control Center but found several rooms locked and no one with keys. The Iraqis said the rooms were locked because Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, was a day off for doctors and other workers and no one else had keys.

Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, head of the National Monitoring Directorate, arrived two hours later, after being summoned by the hot line call. He and the inspectors agreed the rooms would be sealed for inspection later, perhaps on Saturday.

"I don't see this as being a significant problem," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in New York. "We have sealed those rooms that the Iraqi officials could not provide keys for and we'll go back to check on them."

Amin also sought to downplay the incident.

"It is a newly declared site and there was a need for tagging of some of its equipment. There is no problem," he told reporters outside the infectious diseases facility.

The site was not visited by U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s, after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War, and Amin indicated that his government had recently added it to a list of places with dual-use equipment that should be monitored.

Friday's inspections marked the first time the U.N. teams have been in the field on the Muslim day of prayer since returning to work Nov. 27.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, meanwhile, said in an interview broadcast Friday that the U.N. inspectors were doing a "normal" job, but he hinted Baghdad would act if they threaten Iraqi national security.

"In a professional description of the inspectors, it is normal ... So far, we have no negative comments," he told Al-Jazeera television.

"Of course, when the matter reaches a point that we are unable to prevent them from doing harm involving the security of Iraq, we will have a position," Ramadan said in reply to a question over how far Baghdad will go in cooperating with the weapons inspectors.

Also Friday, inspection teams visited three other sites -- one a facility that sells pesticides and two involved with Iraq's ballistic missile program. Details were not released.

Inspectors from the U.N. nuclear control agency took water and soil samples from the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, south of the 33rd parallel -- the northern limit of the southern no-fly zone patrolled by U.S. aircraft. The zone was instituted after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Shiite Muslims in the region against retribution from Saddam.

The International Atomic Energy Agency team also reported doing a broad gamma radiation survey of the Baghdad area, which it said included the Karama Sumood missile facility.

In Vienna, Austria, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said his inspectors would need "something like a year" to prove or disprove Iraq's assertions that it no longer maintains a nuclear weapons program.

Blix's team is searching for evidence of chemical or biological weapons and the means to deliver them. It was one of Blix's teams that was required to wait outside locked rooms at the infectious diseases center Friday.

During inspections a decade ago, the United Nations destroyed tons of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Those inspections ended in 1998 amid U.N.-Iraqi disputes.

Recently published British and U.S. intelligence reports said new construction at old weapons sites and other activities suggest the Iraqis may have resumed making weapons of mass destruction.

The inspections are being conducted in conjunction with economic sanctions imposed on Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Amin has said he hoped the inspectors would be finished and sanctions lifted within eight months. Under U.N. resolutions, the sanctions will only be removed after inspectors report full Iraqi cooperation in their disarmament work.

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