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 Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 15:29 GMT
Inspectors search Saddam palace
Inspectors outside the Republican Palace
The Republican Palace houses Saddam's main offices
United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq have searched a second of President Saddam Hussein's palaces.

The experts were granted immediate access to the Republican Palace in Baghdad, where the Iraqi leader maintains his main office.

Key presidential sites
Map
1 Republican Palace: Saddam Hussein's seat of government
2 Radwaniyah Palace: Saddam Hussein's main residence in Baghdad
3 Azimiyah Palace: One of five key sites in the capital
4 Sijood Palace: Visited by weapons inspectors in November
5 Abu Ghurayb: Suspected bio-weapons production plant
It was not clear if he was inside or not.

Inspectors spent more than three hours in the palace, mainly in its residential quarters and "service" areas, Reuters news agency quoted one of the palace employees as saying.

UN inspectors visited another presidential palace in Baghdad - al-Sijood - in December.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley says they have recently been widening and intensifying their searches under pressure from the Americans to adopt a more aggressive approach.

Chief UN inspector Mr Blix is due to submit his first report to the Security Council on 27 January - a deadline which could be a possible trigger for a US-led war.

US President George W Bush and his main European ally - UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - have described the date as "important", while insisting they have no set timetable for war.

However, the two men have scheduled a meeting after 27 January as they send thousands of troops and equipment to the Gulf in preparation for a possible military intervention.

A former Nato supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, told the BBC on Wednesday that he thought this could happen in mid-to-late February.

The US has also been exerting pressure on Dr Blix to call off plans for a second report by the end of March, the Washington Post newspaper reports.

Russia has added its voice to European Union warnings - echoed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan - against an early war and has called for inspectors to be given time to complete their work.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the visiting head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, that unilateral military action against Baghdad would have dangerous consequences for world peace.

Mr ElBaradei urged Iraq to "shift gear from passive co-operation to active co-operation".

'Sensitive'

Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace also houses offices for special security forces, which protect the ruling elite, and the Republican Guard - a well-trained and loyal military force.

KEY DATES
16 Jan - Chief UN inspector Hans Blix briefs EU
19 Jan - Blix meets top Iraqi officials in Baghdad
27 Jan - First full report on inspections presented to UN
29 Jan - UN discusses report
Mid-Feb - Estimated 150,000 US troops in Gulf
15 Feb - Anti-war protests across Europe
End of March - Blix submits "key remaining disarmament tasks"

Palace employee Wissam Essawi told Reuters that the experts had inspected the residential quarters of palace employees, "service buildings" and the headquarters of a retired army officers' commission.

"They asked what jobs we do and we told them we do administrative work and had nothing to do with [banned weapons]," Mr Essawi said.

Saddam Hussein's eight sprawling palaces - three of them in the Iraqi capital - remain high on the list of suspected hiding places for weapons of mass destruction.

War drums

On Tuesday, President Bush warned that time was "running out" for Saddam Hussein to surrender the weapons of mass destruction which the US insists he owns.

US and British troops heading for the Gulf appear to be gearing up for action after the open Security Council meeting on 27 January which will hear Mr Blix's assessment of inspections so far.

His report is to be considered by governments, before the Council reconvenes in closed session two days later for a fuller discussion.

BBC News Online's world affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, says this in fact might be the key meeting at which positions become clear.

Britain, our correspondent says, might ask the Council to give the inspectors more time if nothing significant has changed before then.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
"In Baghdad inspections are being stepped up"

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15 Jan 03 | Politics
03 Dec 02 | Middle East
03 Dec 02 | Middle East
01 Oct 02 | Middle East
14 Jan 03 | Americas
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