- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

LONDON, Feb. 6 (UPI) — The United Nations' two top weapons inspectors said Thursday that time is becoming "very critical" for Iraq and demanded that President Saddam Hussein's regime show "drastic change" in cooperating with the U.N.'s mission to rid it of weapons of mass destruction.

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, indicated their patience with Iraq is growing thin, as they emerged from briefing British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the progress — or lack of it — of their dealings with Iraqi authorities.

Even as Blix and ElBaradei were delivering their assessment of the tense situation, the British government announced it is sending another 75 warplanes to the Gulf region and increasing its manpower in the area to 42,000 in the buildup to what looks increasingly like war.

The message coming from the U.N. Security Council, ElBaradei told journalists, "is very clear: that Iraq is not cooperating fully, that they need to show drastic change in terms of cooperation" before he and Blix make their next report to the U.N., on Feb. 14.

Their mission to Baghdad this weekend "is crucial," he said, "and we hope we will secure 100 percent cooperation on the part of Iraq."

Blix indicated that part of that trip will be a demand that Iraq show some progress on allowing U2 spy planes to conduct surveillance missions over the country, and that Baghdad allow the U.N. inspectors to interview scientists with no official "minders" present.

"What has not worked," said Blix, "is for the Iraqi side either to present prohibited items for destruction or present evidence that they are finished. On this point, we do not feel that we have had the response we should."

"Time is very critical," ElBaradei added, and "we need to show progress in our report" on Feb. 14. If there is no "positive response" by then, Blix said, "then our reports … will not be what we would like them to be."

But while Blix and ElBaradei both indicated they still believe that war against Iraq is not inevitable, Britain's combat preparations stepped up a big notch Thursday with Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon's announcement that it is building up an air fleet similar to that employed in the 1991 Gulf war — only with more firepower.

The 75 additional warplanes that will increase Britain's air strength near Iraq's borders to some 100 will include fighter jets, bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and transport planes, as well as an armada of helicopters.

Also steaming toward the possible war zone is a 17-ship British fleet headed by its biggest warship, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

As he flexed Britain's military muscle, Hoon said Iraq could still avoid military conflict, but that time is fast running out.

"The Iraqi regime must decide whether it will comply with its obligations or face the consequences," he warned.

In other developments, police launched another series of pre-dawn, coordinated anti-terrorism raids across England and Scotland on Thursday and arrested six men and a woman. The operation was described as part of a crackdown that began with the discovery of lethal ricin poison that had been manufactured in a London apartment.

The raids brought to nearly 300 the total number of men and women, many of them would-be asylum seekers from northern Africa and the Middle East, who have been arrested by British police since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

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