Top United Nations inspectors say they will seek interviews with Iraqi weapons experts in the near future to help find answers to questions about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors have told the UN Security Council that Iraq has so far provided an unsatisfactory response to questions related to nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons programs. Meanwhile, British officials have signaled that the next report of inspectors, which is due on 27 January, should not be seen as a possible final deadline for Iraqi compliance.
United Nations, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Concerned about gaps in Iraq's weapons declaration, the two chief United Nations inspection officials say they will step up efforts to interview Iraqi experts when they travel to Baghdad later this month.
The issue of interviews with Iraqi specialists took on added significance after closed briefings to the UN Security Council by top UN inspector Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In their briefings, Blix and el-Baradei said that Iraq had failed to adequately address concerns about its weapons programs but added that at the same time, they had not found evidence indicating Baghdad is concealing illegal weapons.
Unfettered access to Iraqi weapons experts is considered a key part of the inspections. Blix told reporters after the meeting yesterday that inspectors have already carried out a number of interviews. But he said in his visit to Baghdad on 19-20 January that he would ask to interview specialists without Iraqi officials present. "We carry out a lot of interviews, and we get a lot of information, and frequently minders [Iraqi observers] are present. Interviews with minders present are not useless. They were not [useless] in the past, and they are not useless now. However, Iraq is a totalitarian country, and we do not want to have interviews where people are intimidated, and that happened in the past," Blix said.
El-Baradei said the IAEA has also begun to interview key Iraqi personnel. But he said that in the case of two interviews that the IAEA requested be done in private, the individuals to be interviewed requested the presence of an Iraqi government observer.
El-Baradei told reporters that his agency will continue to press for private interviews and look into transferring some experts abroad for interviews, as permitted under Security Council Resolution 1441. "If Iraq is willing to show proactive cooperation, we should be allowed to do private interviews inside Iraq. We [Blix and el-Baradei] are also both of the view that should we identify people whom we would like to interview outside of Iraq, we'll exercise that right," el-Baradei said.
Both officials were critical of Iraq for failing to address questions they raised weeks ago. They said Iraq still needs to provide more evidence to dispel doubts about its programs to use anthrax and nerve gas as weapons. They also have outstanding questions about Iraqi efforts to procure uranium and its declared import of missile engines, the last a violation of Security Council resolutions.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, repeated in the council yesterday Washington's call for a mechanism to be set up urgently to conduct out-of-country interviews. But Blix reiterated his concerns yesterday about coercing Iraqi experts to defect.
The chief of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate in charge of working with UN inspectors, Major General Husam Muhammad Amin, told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that inspectors had made an informal request for interviewing experts outside the country. Amin also said Iraq would respond to questions by the IAEA and the UN inspection mission. "We shall positively deal with these questions, and we welcome any questions from the [UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Mission] and from the IAEA to finalize and to resolve any pending issues from the their point of view," Amin said.
Weapons experts say the experience of the previous UN inspection mission, known as UNSCOM, underlines the importance of getting information from experts outside the presence of Iraqi authorities.
Biological weapons, in particular, are easy to conceal. The 1995 defection of Iraqi General Hussein Kemal led to the discovery of Iraq's biological-weapons program, which Iraq had not declared.
That experience should highlight the importance of interviews of experts done safely away from Iraqi officials, says Eric Croddy, a senior research associate in chemical and biological weapons at the Monterey Institute. "As good as the [UNSCOM] inspectors were, if it weren't for Kemal, very little of that would have come out, or at least they would not have been able to confirm it. Then, of course, Iraq gave an avalanche of stuff not knowing exactly how much Kemal [had disclosed]," Croddy said.
In addition to the United States, council members Britain, France, and Germany all urged Iraq to actively cooperate with inspectors and to respond to outstanding questions about weapons programs. Many council members stressed the need for more time to allow inspectors to do their work.
Officials from Britain, the main U.S. ally, also signaled yesterday that the date for the next report by Blix, 27 January, should not be considered as any sort of deadline for conflict.
Britain's UN ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, repeated comments from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying the meeting on 27 January should be regarded as another in a series of useful briefings on Iraq. "The 27th of January will be another in that series of reports, probably not the last by any means. We recognize that time is needed for the inspection process," Greenstock said.
U.S. presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking in Washington, said President George W. Bush also does not consider 27 January a deadline for the use of force. But he would not speculate on Washington's reaction to the next inspectors' report.
In response to a reporter's question, Fleischer defended the buildup of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region. "The presence of the military has an effective influence on diplomacy, making sure that Saddam Hussein understands that he needs to comply, because if he doesn't, the United States has the means and the ability to make him comply," Fleischer said.
UN inspectors have now carried out 150 inspections of 127 sites throughout Iraq. Blix told the council that the absence of dramatic finds -- what he called "smoking guns" -- does not mean inspections have been futile. He said a steady number of Iraqi industrial, military, and research sites are opening up under the authority of a tough Security Council resolution, increasing the country's transparency after four years without inspections.
(RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan contributed to this report.)