Originally created 02/03/03

Baghdad says will 'do our best' to give Blix what he wants



BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Just days before a crucial round of talks with chief inspectors, a senior Iraqi official said Sunday that Baghdad is "keen to resolve any pending issues" in the U.N. search for banned weapons, but didn't immediately offer new concessions.

Maj. Gen. Hossam Mohamed Amin indicated, nevertheless, that Iraq may have compromise proposals on hand for the talks next Saturday and Sunday with Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. "We shall do our best to make his (Blix's) visit successful," Amin told reporters.

Iraq, which steadfastly denies it has forbidden arms, is under pressure to make concessions and show progress in the U.N. inspections process, to forestall any U.S.-British diplomatic bid for support for military action against Baghdad.

In his news conference, Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison to the U.N. inspectors, also dismissed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's plan to present purported evidence of prohibited Iraqi weapons programs to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

That material will probably be "fabricated space photos or aerial photos," of a kind the Iraqis could refute if given a chance to study it, Amin said. "It is a political game," he said.

President Saddam Hussein is expected to have more to say about the U.S.-Iraqi confrontation in a rare interview, conducted Sunday with retired British lawmaker Tony Benn. Benn said the taped interview would be televised within a day or two.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Blix and ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), accepted an Iraqi invitation to return for a new round of talks just ahead of their next report to the Security Council, on Feb. 14. It will be the second round of Baghdad talks for Blix and ElBaradei in three weeks.

The two chief inspectors say they hope to see Iraqi movement beforehand on two immediate issues: U.N. reconnaissance flights over Iraq, and U.N. access to weapons scientists in private interviews.

Asked whether Iraq was prepared to bend to the U.N. position, Amin instead repeated Baghdad's positions on both items.

The Iraqis say they will allow American U-2 surveillance flights on behalf of U.N. inspections as long as the United States and Britain halt air patrols over southern and northern Iraq while the spy planes are in the air. This way, they say, Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries won't mistake the reconnaissance aircraft for U.S. and British warplanes and fire on them.

In their Jan. 19-20 talks here, the chief inspectors "told us they have no authority to achieve this," Amin said.

On private interviews with scientists, Amin reiterated to reporters, "We cannot force them (scientists) to conduct such interviews."

In an authoritarian system like Iraq's, the inspectors believe, such specialists will be more candid in private meetings, without government officials monitoring, when asked about possible illicit weapons programs. Thus far, every potential Iraqi witness has refused to submit to such secret interviews, demanding the presence of a witness.

American officials contend Saddam's government has threatened death for any scientist who grants a private interview.

Although he discussed no possible compromise approaches on the issues, Amin told reporters, "We are always ready to discuss or make technical discussions with (the inspectors) to resolve any pending issues from their point of view."

A series of U.N. resolutions since Iraq's defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War prohibit any programs for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Thousands of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons were destroyed under a previous U.N. inspection program in the 1990s, and an Iraqi program aimed at building nuclear bombs was dismantled.

New inspections began in November, after a four-year gap, to check for any leftover weapons and to ensure that such programs haven't been revived since the U.N. teams departed in 1998.

The Bush administration insists, without presenting proof, that Iraq is hiding banned weaponry and says it will invade the country if, in its view, Baghdad has not disarmed.

The United States has marshaled almost 90,000 military personnel in the Gulf region, a number that may double within weeks. In a further sign of the rising tension, the Turkish military Sunday began moving troops from western Turkey to its border with Iraq, a likely flashpoint in any war.

The U.S. war plans, backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have stirred opposition worldwide. Small numbers of Western protesters sometimes bring their protests to Baghdad's streets, as a dozen American women activists did on Sunday.

Calling themselves the "CodePink" peace vigil, they demonstrated in Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square sporting pink caps and pink umbrellas and balloons, and unfurling a banner reading, "Working Together For Peace."

In Sunday's daily U.N. arms inspections, monitors made surprise visits to, among other sites, a missile factory west of Baghdad and a chemicals complex to the south, both often inspected before, and to the Abu Ghraib Dairy Company, 12 miles west of the capital, the Information Ministry reported.

The dairy inspection, during which the U.N. team examined the interior of milk truck tanks, was not immediately explained, but the site presumably was linked to the hunt for signs of biological weapons work.

"They have been looking for more than 50 days, and didn't find anything. The Iraqis are right - we don't have these kinds of weapons," a leader of Iraq's National Assembly, Secretary General Ghalib Jassim, told a reporter at a ceremony marking the 12-year anniversary period of the 1991 Gulf War.