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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 06:27 GMT
Iraq inspectors hit back at criticism
Inspectors at the Muthanna complex in the desert
Searches continue amid criticism from Iraq and US
UN weapons inspectors in Iraq have defended themselves after accusations by Baghdad of spying and suggestions by Washington that searches are not "aggressive" enough.

The resolution is loaded with landmines; one bigger than the other, and the aim is that one of those would explode

Iraqi Vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan
Baghdad had launched a scathing attack on the experts currently searching sites in Iraq, accusing them of providing intelligence to the US and Israel to help with preparations for a military offensive.

Pressure has also mounted on the inspection team from the White House, which has indicated yet again that it feels the searches are unsatisfactory.

"We believe we are doing the job we need to be doing. We have been unannounced and thorough," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors are helping with the search.

Ms Fleming rejected allegations of espionage, but added that if any inspector were found to be a spy, he would be immediately dismissed.

"We have always said there is no room for any spies on our inspection teams," she told the BBC.

There are now only days to go before Iraq must submit a report of all its weapons programmes - which it continues to assert do not exist.

Tension mounts

Iraqi frustration at the inspections first became evident on Wednesday, with criticism of Tuesday's surprise checks at one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces, swiftly followed by Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan's allegations of espionage.

Sijood Palace
Iraq described the Sijood palace inspection as "unjustified"
Mr Ramadan also placed himself in direct conflict with the inspectors when he told journalists that if carried out properly, the inspections could be finished "in weeks" as opposed to the year or so anticipated by the UN team.

More controversially, the vice-president also said that Iraq was thinking of calling in neutral third parties to check weapons sites after the UN had inspected them.

The BBC's Andrew Gilligan in Baghdad says this could, if pursued, be seen as a new Iraqi condition - precisely the kind of issue which has caused past inspections to fail.

More 'aggressive'

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also stepped up the pressure on the inspections team, saying the administration was keen to make sure there were enough inspectors to do multiple searches at the same time.

"We want to make certain that they [the inspections] are aggressive enough to be able to ascertain the facts in the face of an adversary who in the past did everything in his power to hide the facts," Mr Fleischer told reporters.

President George W Bush said earlier in the week that he was not "encouraged" by what he has seen so far, while his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the inspectors do not have the "ability" to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In another development, the US agreed to back an extension of the UN's oil-for-food programme to Iraq for a further six months in exchange for the Security Council reviewing the list of goods Baghdad needs approval to import.

Washington wants to add about 50 items to the list which it alleges Iraq could use for warfare.

The BBC's John Sudworth
"The US administration said it all ready knows the truth about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction"
President George W Bush
"The issue is not playing hide and seek but whether Saddam Hussein has disarmed"
Tariq Aziz, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister
"The whole issue of weapons of mass destruction is a hoax"

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See also:

04 Dec 02 | Middle East
03 Dec 02 | Middle East
04 Dec 02 | Middle East
18 Nov 02 | Middle East
16 Nov 02 | Americas
04 Dec 02 | Europe
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