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UN: Blix's Failure To Find 'Smoking Gun' In Iraq Could Fuel Anti-War Sentiment

UN arms inspector Hans Blix's statement that he has found no "smoking guns" (incontrovertible evidence) indicating that Baghdad is continuing its weapons of mass destruction programs is likely to raise new doubts in some European and Arab capitals about any military campaign against Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix told the UN yesterday that in two months of what he called "ever wider" inspection sweeps in Iraq, his teams have found no immediate evidence that Baghdad is still making chemical or biological weapons or attempting to make nuclear bombs:

"We have now been there (in Iraq) for two months, covering the country in ever wider sweeps. We haven't found any smoking guns, no. And, of course, if we were to find something dramatic, we would report that immediately to the (UN) Security Council."

But Blix added that the inspectors' work so far, to quote, "is by no means sufficient to give confidence that nothing is hidden in a large country with an earlier record of avoiding disclosures." He also said that Iraq's declaration of its arms programs to the UN last month "failed to answer a great many questions."

U.S. officials are greeting the statements by the top UN inspector with caution. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters, "We know for a fact that there are weapons there (in Iraq)." He also said that not finding a "smoking gun" may simply mean the weapons are well hidden from the UN monitors:

"The problem with guns that are hidden is that you can't see their smoke, and so we will still wait to see what the inspectors find in Iraq."

Analysts say Blix's progress report may fuel sentiment in many countries that more evidence proving Iraq is maintaining its weapons of mass destruction would be needed before any U.S.-led coalition can justifiably wage a pre-emptive war against Baghdad.

It could also increase demands that no war begin without UN authorization -- specifically, a new Security Council resolution concluding Iraq is refusing to cooperate on disarmament and can only be dealt with militarily.

Paul Cornish, the director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London, says Blix's statements could strongly boost anti-war sentiment in London. There, some politicians in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's own Labour Party have regularly criticized their leader for backing possible military action:

"I think it certainly does [boost anti-war sentiment], and we are hearing something of that coming out in the debate now from backbench Labour politicians and others across the political spectrum saying, 'Well, what is this [war] for?' We are going back in a sense to the question about 'what is the evidence?' for the use of armed force against Iraq?"

The anti-war sentiment could be strengthened by an announcement from the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency that aluminum tubes Iraq was suspected of trying to buy to enrich uranium were actually intended for a rocket engine program instead, just as Baghdad had claimed.

The head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, made the statement while appearing with Blix at the UN yesterday.

Cornish says Blair's government has based much of its case for British support for dealing sternly with Baghdad upon a dossier of evidence of Iraq's mass destruction weapons programs, which Blair presented to the public last year. The dossier made use mostly of evidence uncovered by previous UN inspection teams, rather than top-secret intelligence information gathered by Washington or London.

The analyst says that now -- since the IAEA's finding regarding the aluminum tubing could weaken public confidence in Blair's evidence -- Washington and London may have to present some of their own sensitive intelligence information to win back public support:

"The problem now for the U.S. and U.K. is how much of their own national intelligence can they now begin to reveal in order to convince their own publics that they are on the right track and ... know what they are doing?"

In a sign of Blair's sensitivity to anti-war sentiment, the prime minister yesterday stressed that he supports international efforts to achieve a peaceful disarmament of Iraq. His spokesman said Blair urged his cabinet and the media to give UN inspectors time to fully assess whether Iraq is complying with UN demands.

The plea to give the UN time was a marked shift from what have been weeks of strong statements from Blair stressing the dangers that Iraq's weapons present to world security and the necessity of disarming Saddam by force if necessary.

But Blair's spokesman emphasized the British leader has not changed his belief that if the UN fails to deal successfully with Iraq, a coalition of states should do the job. The spokesman said: "The bottom line for the prime minister is that the UN has to be a way of dealing with the issue, not avoiding it."

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw continued to press that message while on a Southeast Asian tour yesterday. Speaking in Indonesia, he said Iraqi weapons of mass destruction "pose as great a threat to the Muslim world as to the West."

Britain's position on Iraq is important because London is Washington's strongest supporter for a possible military campaign against Iraq. Washington is steadily building up a force in the Gulf that could fight a war this spring if given the order. British newspapers have reported London will begin deploying a naval-based force to the Gulf in the middle of this month.

Many other European capitals have said they would only lend their military support to a campaign against Iraq if it has UN approval.

France this month reiterated calls for a second UN Security Council resolution before any coalition attacks Iraq. Russia also has previously called for a second resolution.

Most Arab states, too, favor a war only with UN approval. Saudi Arabia said early this week that it would decide whether to support a U.S.-led war on Iraq once it has seen proof from the UN that Baghdad has weapons of mass destruction.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said that if "the United Nations asks Saudi Arabia to join [a punitive campaign against Iraq], depending on ... the proof that they show, Saudi Arabia will decide."