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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 17:57 GMT
'No smoking guns' in Iraq arms search
UN inspectors take notes at Natural Gas Establishment in Beji
It will take inspectors months to verify Iraq's arsenal
The chief UN arms inspectors, Hans Blix, says there are still "many unanswered questions" about Iraq's weapons programmes, five weeks after Baghdad issued a declaration on its arsenal.

Iraqi weapons declaration
6,000 poison as bombs unused from Iran-Iraq war
50 conventional warheads Iraq says it has destroyed
550 mustard gas shells that went "missing" after Gulf War

But, as he went into a United Nations Security Council briefing, he indicated there was so far no evidence to provoke the "serious consequences" threatened by the Security Council's November resolution.

"We have now been there for some two months and been covering the country in ever wider sweeps and we haven't found any smoking guns," he said.

However, Mr Blix said closer reading of the 12,000-page document submitted by Iraq had not changed his preliminary opinion that there were gaps in the declaration.

'Unjustified questions'

Inspectors have been saying that it will take months to investigate fully the declaration's assertions - far beyond 27 January, when Mr Blix is to make his first full report to the council.

Iraq, while insisting that its declaration is complete, says it is willing to clarify any questions from the inspections team.

"We welcome any questions put forward ... but we expect these questions to be relevant to the outstanding issues," said Iraq's General Hossam Mohammed Amin.

"If these questions are relevant, they can be dealt with very positively," he said.

Iraq has complained that the UN's inspectors are overstepping the mark, and are carrying out "unjustified questioning".

General Amin has sent a letter of complaint to the United Nations, giving "examples of incidents where the questions were irrelevant to the work".

Earlier this week, President Saddam accused the teams of conducting "pure intelligence work" - a claim rejected by the inspectors.

Iraqi interviews

Mr Blix said on Thursday his inspectors would start interviewing more Iraqi scientists soon, to try to fill in the gaps missing in the declaration.

General Amin said the prospect of interviews taking place outside Iraq had been informally raised, but so far no official request had been made, the Associated Press reported.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said in a newspaper interview that Washington has given the inspectors valuable intelligence information regarding Iraq's alleged weapons' sites - to make them more "aggressive".

Some intelligence is being held back in what correspondents say is a sign that the US is no longer in such a hurry to go to war.

'Time and space'

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair wants the inspectors to be given "time and space to do their job", a spokesman said on Thursday.

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix
Blix: More interviews with Iraqi scientists soon
He said the 27 January date should not be seen as a deadline.

However, he denied a media report that London was urging Washington to delay military action until the autumn.

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason says the mood in London - the main US ally - is shifting against war, in the absence of clear evidence that Iraq is concealing weapons of mass destruction.

War plans

The head of the US Central Command, General Tommy Franks, is in Washington to report to President George W Bush and his security chiefs on the latest plans for possible military action against Iraq.

The first long-range B-1 bombers have left their base in South Dakota, with more set to follow.

American military headquarters staff are also heading for the Gulf region.

There are more than 60,000 US personnel in the region, to be joined shortly by another 25,000.

Britain is also putting its troops on standby.

  The BBC's Greg Barrow reports from New York
"The UN says it has found nothing to incriminate Baghdad"
  Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix
"The declaration failed to answer a great many questions"
  The BBC's Barnaby Mason
"British officials refuse to get into speculation about the timing of any military action against Iraq"

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See also:

09 Jan 03 | Country profiles
09 Jan 03 | Middle East
09 Jan 03 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Middle East
11 Dec 02 | Americas
09 Jan 03 | Politics
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