- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

The growing likelihood that arms inspectors will fail to uncover forbidden Iraqi weapons programs before a U.N. briefing planned for Jan. 27 is hampering Bush administration efforts to rally broad international support for a quick strike against Baghdad.
U.S. and British officials yesterday accentuated the negative after a private, preliminary briefing to the U.N. Security Council by Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons monitor, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency the two men charged with assessing whether the regime of Saddam Hussein has stockpiled nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
"There's no indication that Iraq has changed from its approach based on deceit and deception," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"We know for a fact there are weapons there," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
But Mr. Blix's comment yesterday that the U.N. teams so far have found no "smoking guns" in more than a month of inspections and interviews provided cover for a number of countries who have opposed or questioned the need for military action against Saddam.
Hans Pleuger, Germany's ambassador to the United Nations, said after the Blix-ElBaradei briefing, "We subscribe to the recent statement of [U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan] that the inspections should continue, and for that reason alone, there are no grounds for military action."
Syria, Iraq's neighbor and the only Arab member of the 15-nation Security Council, believes Iraq so far is "completely in cooperation" with U.N. inspectors, according to its U.N. ambassador, Mikhail Wehbe.
China's foreign ministry called on the leading U.N. powers to judge the Iraqi report "fairly and objectively," and officials in France, the current leader of the Security Council, said the inspections in Iraq to date have proceeded in a "very efficient way."
French President Jacques Chirac, who has sent mixed signals in recent days about his willingness to participate in a U.S.-led military strike on Baghdad, said in Paris yesterday that war "is always the worst of all solutions."
"It should only be envisioned if absolutely all other options fail and, of course, only with a decision by the U.N. Security Council," Mr. Chirac said.
The inconclusive early returns on Iraq's weapons programs have both U.S. and British officials playing down the significance of the Jan. 27 meeting.
It marks the deadline for weapons inspectors to submit their first formal report to the Security Council, and many had considered it a likely tripwire for conflict.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair "categorically" denied a newspaper report that his government has urged Washington to put off any attack until November, reportedly to allow the inspectors to find more evidence of Iraqi misdeeds and solidify international support for war.
But Mr. Blair's spokesman said the prime minister believes the U.N. inspectors "must be given the time and space to do their jobs." The Jan. 27 meeting, the spokesman said, should be seen as a "staging post" and not a deadline for military action.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview published yesterday in The Washington Post, said the U.S. government does not view the Jan. 27 briefing as "necessarily a D-Day for decision-making."
"My advice is to calm down about the 27th of January," said British U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, who noted that Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei have the power to report Iraqi violations of the disarmament order to the Security Council anytime they want.
Many conservative advisers both inside and outside the Bush administration cautioned last summer against taking the Iraq standoff to the United Nations, saying Mr. Bush's demands for disarmament and regime change would get bogged down in diplomatic maneuvering and Iraqi gamesmanship even if the inspectors were allowed back in.
Saddam has complained loudly about intrusive inspections and accused the inspectors of spying for the United States and Britain, but to date Iraqi officials have not blocked the inspectors from any targeted site.
The United States says Iraq's list of its weapons programs was woefully inadequate and that Saddam's regime has not shown "proactive cooperation" with the United Nations' disarmament demands.
But the drawn-out process has created political difficulties for a number of U.S. allies.
Mr. Blair faces a large bloc in his own ruling Labor Party that opposes the war.
In Turkey, a strong U.S. ally on Iraq's northern border, a newly elected government dominated by a party with Islamist roots has hesitated over whether to grant the U.S. ground forces the right to use key bases in staging an attack.
Polls show that more than 80 percent of Turks now oppose military action against Baghdad, fearing instability in the region and new hardships for the country's economy.
U.S. officials refused to speculate on how they would react to an ambiguous status report from Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei at the end of the month.
"That's a question you can ask on January 28," the State Department's Mr. Boucher said.

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