- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) — The United States on Friday accused Saddam Hussein of intimidating Iraqi scientists to prevent them from being privately interviewed by U.N. inspectors about weapons of mass destruction.

The intimidation and lack of cooperation in the matter were further "evidence" that Iraq had something to hide from the international community, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"To protect the peace, Iraq must allow and encourage its scientists to participate in private interviews, and it must do so without delay and without debate," Fleischer said.

"Saddam Hussein has called the inspectors 'spies.' In Iraq, if the president of Iraq, who does not exactly have a history of being a peaceful man toward those who have any dissent toward his opinions, calls the inspectors 'spies,' he is sending a very powerful message to his scientists: 'Don't meet with them, because if you meet with spies, you know the history of what's happened to people who defy my will.'"

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and others are said to be troubled by their inability to privately interview Iraqi scientists and technicians who may know about the country's suspected programs of weapons of mass destruction. Those private interviews are provided for in U.N. Resolution 1441, passed in November to compel Iraq's compliance with U.N. disarmament mandates.

Iraq says it has been unable to persuade the scientists to cooperate, and that the scientists have said they will meet with U.N. personnel only if a government official was present.

"In a totalitarian police state like Iraq, that's laughable," Fleischer said. "There's no credibility to that."

Iraq has also refused to allow inspectors to use U2 surveillance aircraft in their search for the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was known to possess in the late 1980s. "They (the inspectors) are not getting what Iraq had committed to do," Fleischer said. "And again, under the U.N. resolution, it is not a question of negotiation; it is a obligation."

U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq two months ago following a four-year hiatus after President George W. Bush pressed the U.N. Security Council to confront Iraq over what he said was the country's 11-year flouting of disarmament mandates. The demand resulted in a new Security Council resolution, to which Saddam in the face of international condemnation and U.S. threats of military action.

The latest broadside from Washington comes as inspectors are getting set to deliver a report on the progress of their work in Iraq. There is widespread speculation in Washington and world capitals that the report Monday, which is to include details of non-cooperation, will mark the final countdown to Washington and its allies in launching a military attack against Baghdad.

The White House insists that Bush has not yet made a decision to do so, and instead is consulting with other states and that awaiting the inspectors' report Monday is "an important date" but not necessarily the trigger date for war.

The president says he still hopes Saddam will resolve the issue peacefully by finally proving its disarmament of chemical and biological weapons and their components.

However, the United States soon will have more than 130,000 troops in the Gulf to unleash, if necessary, against Iraq, which it says poses a grave threat to national and international security.

France and Germany, major U.S. allies, oppose any military operation, but Washington has made it plain that it is prepared to move without them, relying instead on other countries to join in any operation.

Bush and other administration officials have repeatedly said time was running out for Saddam, who they accuse of playing a hide-and-seek, stalling game with inspectors. To argue that inspectors should be given unlimited time to continue operations in Iraq was a "rerun of a bad movie, and I don't want to see it," Bush said.

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