- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 17 (UPI) — U.N. weapons inspection chief Hans Blix Friday downplayed a discovery of empty chemical warheads in Iraq and suggested the find may not be the evidence that allows Washington to launch war on Baghdad.

"It's not a huge thing," he said following a meeting with fellow arms

inspector Mohamed ElBaradei and French President Jacques Chirac. "These

are chemical warheads that are empty."

Blix said he was not certain whether any mention of the empty chemical

warheads existed in Iraq's 12,000-page report submitted to the United Nations in

December, saying he needed more information from U.N. headquarters. Baghdad has asserted the warheads were in the report, but a U.N. spokesman denied that Thursday.

Blix suggested the findings may not push the Bush administration to go to war against Iraq.

"You better ask Mr. Bush himself," the weapons chief said. "However, what I see from the American reaction is they too would like to have a little further information about this. So I'm not so worried."

Blix and ElBaradei are heading to Baghdad this weekend, ahead of a Jan. 27 deadline for preliminary findings by weapons inspectors to the U.N. Security Council.

Both weapons chiefs have said the date is not a final deadline and that they need several months more of inspections to ascertain whether Iraq possesses nuclear or biological weapons programs.

Chirac suggested France would not participate in any unilateral U.S. military action against Baghdad.

"The (weapons) inspectors received their mission from the United Nations Security Council," Chirac said. "It's up to the council — and the council alone — to judge both the reports and the demands of the inspectors."

"As a result, if one country or another took a measure that is not in conformity with this, it would put itself purely and simply in contraction with the international rule," Chirac said. "It's a position France naturally would not be able to support."

Chirac's remarks Friday amount to the clearest declaration to date about France's stance regarding a possible war on Baghdad. The French government — which has been pressing for a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis — has previously confined itself to a vague declaration that France "would assume its responsibilities."

Chirac also downplayed his call last week for French armed forces "to be prepared for all eventualities."

His remarks sparked a flurry of speculation the president was preparing the French public for war. But Chirac said he made such a declaration regularly as president and chief of armed forces — and that the current timing was nothing special.

Chirac's remarks are in line with stepped up calls by European and other leaders to give U.N. inspectors time to do their job thoroughly. Beyond the political and human costs, Chirac noted Friday that a new Gulf War would bring great economic cost — at a time when many poor countries receive insufficient

international aid.

At the same time, both Blix and ElBaradei repeated calls Friday for Baghdad to be more proactive in working with arms inspectors, suggesting the burden of proof that Iraq was free of weapons of mass destruction was on that country.

Blix also said intelligence information supplied by the United States and other countries was beginning to help inspectors in their search for hidden weapons sites.

"We are now beginning to inspect these sites, so I'm not worried," he said. "But we need more information, Mr. ElBaradei and me."

Blix also suggested he would not heed a reported call by U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to scrap submitting another updated report, due in March. Blix said he was aware of Bush administration concerns about the pace of weapons inspections.

But, he added, "I have another (report) due on the first of March. And I cannot see that anything has been said by the (Security) Council to cancel that. So we continue to work on that."

The U.N. weapons chief added Baghdad had so far failed to illuminate gray areas in its weapons programs, such as anthrax and other "taboo" materials listed in 1999 U.N. reports which "does not square" with Iraqi claims.

"The Iraqis have a tendency to brush it aside and say this is nonsensical," Blix said. "We think they have to come up with good explanations, documentations or witnesses who will give us confidence."

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