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Inspectors, Iraq settle on new practical steps
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Chief weapons inspectors and Iraqi officials ended two days of critical talks Monday with a 10-point agreement to make U.N. inspections more effective and possibly help answer questions about what happened to thousands of chemical and biological weapons.
In potentially important concessions, the Iraqis agreed to encourage weapons scientists to submit to private interviews with U.N. inspectors and promised to search their stocks for more chemical rocket warheads like the 16 empty munitions found in two Iraq locations in recent days.
The agreement comes a week before the chief inspectors are to deliver a key report on their hunt for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq, which resumed in November. The inspectors are pressing for more time to search, even as Washington and London -- the chief proponents of military action -- say time is running out.
Britain, America's staunchest ally, announced it was sending 26,000 troops -- one-quarter of its army -- to the Persian Gulf in case of war against Iraq. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that Iraq was running out of time to comply with U.N. orders.
Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei had flown to Baghdad on Sunday, seeking greater Iraqi cooperation with the inspectors.
"We still need some time" for inspections, ElBaradei said.
The demand for private interviews with weapons scientists had been a key one for the inspectors. Under the new agreement, Iraq also promised to expand a list of such prospective witnesses that Baghdad gave the United Nations.
No arrangements were announced for taking specialists abroad for questioning, as sought by the U.S. government. However, Blix said Monday night in Athens that it was likely the interviews would be held soon in Cyprus.
"It is entirely up to the scientist himself if he is willing to leave his country," Iraqi presidential adviser Lt. Gen. Amir al-Saadi said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed the significance of Iraq's concessions, calling them "just more of the same. ... Only under pressure does Iraq respond."
The United States has repeatedly said it has evidence -- although it has not made any public -- that Saddam's government harbors weapons of mass destruction, and Washington has threatened war if Iraq, in its view, does not disarm. Baghdad insists it no longer holds such weapons.
Powell, speaking Sunday of the inspection process, said, "We can't keep this up forever."
'Only interested in action'
On Monday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed Baghdad's statement on private interviews, saying, "We're only interested in action."
But others on the 15-nation Security Council -- including France, China and Russia, who all hold veto powers -- advocate allowing the inspectors months more to do their job.
"There's much more to do in terms of the inspections and it will take some time," China's foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, said in New York.
Amir al-Saadi, Saddam's top science adviser, called the two days of talks with Blix and ElBaradei "very constructive and positive."
The joint U.N.-Iraqi statement listed these among major points of agreement:
The Iraqi government will encourage scientists to agree to private interviews with U.N. inspectors. All specialists approached thus far by the U.N. teams have asked to have Iraqi officials present for interviews, an arrangement inspectors believe keeps witnesses from being candid.
Iraq agreed to expand the list of such potential interview subjects, with advice from the U.N. experts. The list of about 500 submitted last month was called not a "serious effort" by Blix.
Iraq will conduct a "comprehensive search" for old 122mm rocket warheads designed to hold chemical agents. Sixteen such warheads, unfilled, were found in two Iraqi locations last week. Thousands such "special munitions" remain unaccounted for in Iraqi documents reviewed by the United Nations.
Iraq agreed to respond to questions regarding its 12,000-page declaration submitted to the United Nations on Dec. 8. Both Washington and U.N. inspectors criticized the declaration as inadequate.
Some documents requested by the U.N. inspectors, to help fill gaps in the declaration, were handed over during the talks. Others requested have not been produced.
Documents and clarifications to the December declaration could begin, in time, to resolve complex issues of accountability for old weapons programs -- such as the disappearance, on paper, of 550 artillery shells loaded with lethal mustard gas and a lack of evidence to support Iraq's claim it destroyed large amounts of VX nerve agent.
The U.N. experts want to see production and destruction records and other documents and to interview witnesses to try to establish the disposition of such Iraqi material, prohibited by the United Nations since Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, which began with an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The teams of U.N. inspectors, meanwhile, continued their daily, unannounced rounds, visiting a chemical and explosives plant, an anti-aircraft missile maintenance facility, and a communicable diseases center, among other sites.