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Saturday, 8 February, 2003, 13:41 GMT
Inspectors start critical Iraq talks
Hans Blix arrives in Baghdad
Blix's visit could determine the course of events
The United Nations' chief weapons inspectors have begun pivotal talks on disarmament, amid intensifying preparations for a possible war.

Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei said they would seek Iraq's "co-operation on substance", including allowing Iraqi scientists to be interviewed in private and permitting U2 surveillance planes to fly over Iraq.

Diplomacy has been exhausted almost

Donald Rumsfeld,
US Defence Secretary
Shortly before the two men flew in from Cyprus, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that the world would know "within days or weeks" whether Iraq was complying with UN demands to disarm.

Meanwhile, rifts within the UN Security Council over how to deal with Iraq have deepened, with Russia, France and China calling for inspections to be given more time.

Open in new window : Iraq facts
A statistical view of daily life in Iraq

In marked contrast, President Bush pressured the Council on Friday to "make up its mind" over how to force Iraq to abandon suspected prohibited weapons.

Mr Blix and Mr ElBaradei are due to present reports to the Security Council on Friday which, if negative, could begin the countdown to US-led military action within weeks.

"We are always hopeful for success," said Mr Blix, as he and Mr ElBaradei arrived at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry for talks.

US scrutiny

In an apparent concession to a key UN demand, Iraq allowed three scientists to be interviewed in private by UN inspectors on Friday, a day after a first scientist was questioned by himself.

Open in new window : Powell's report
View the photographic evidence

It is unclear, however, whether the latest interviewees came forward voluntarily.

Mr Blix said he would ask Iraqi officials to account for omissions in Baghdad's arms declaration presented to the Security Council last December.

Correspondents say the White House will be keeping a keen eye on events in Baghdad this weekend.

Efforts will be made to squash any suggestion that the Iraqis are moving towards co-operation, they say.

At an international security conference in Germany on Saturday, the US defence secretary warned that the world must be "prepared to use force if necessary" to disarm Iraq.

"Diplomacy has been exhausted almost," Mr Rumsfeld said.

UN divided

His comments came amid an intensifying push by the Bush administration to galvanise international support for military action.

CURRENT SECURITY COUNCIL
UN Security Council
For military action: US*, UK*, Spain and Bulgaria
Sceptics or opposed: France*, Russia*, China*, Germany and Syria
In doubt: Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan
Nine votes and no veto required to pass a resolution

*veto-wielding countries

On Friday, President Bush spoke to the presidents of France and China - countries with the power to veto a new UN resolution authorising force.

In recent days, he has also spoken to the leaders of Russia and Britain - the other two permanent Security Council members.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr Bush warned Chinese President Jiang Zemin that "time was of the essence in dealing with Iraq", and that "the credibility of the United Nations was at stake".

Britain - America's staunchest ally - is reportedly drafting a new UN resolution authorising force against Iraq in time for when Mr Blix and Mr ElBaradei report back.

But Pope John Paul II has called for renewed efforts to avoid a war.

"One must not resign oneself, almost as if the war were inevitable," he said.

The Pope will meet Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz next Friday, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan the following week.

As the diplomatic tussling continued, America stepped up its preparations for war by ordering a fifth aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, to the Gulf.

Three other aircraft carriers are already there and a fourth is on its way.

The BBC has learnt that the US navy plans to have at least 30 ships and submarines equipped with cruise missiles ready for action against Iraq - many more than in the Gulf war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's David Chazan
"The inspectors are hoping for more concessions"
Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General
"There is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations Security Council"

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See also:

08 Feb 03 | Europe
08 Feb 03 | Middle East
07 Feb 03 | Middle East
07 Feb 03 | Middle East
05 Feb 03 | Americas
28 Jan 03 | Americas
27 Jan 03 | Americas
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