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Last Updated:  Friday, 7 March, 2003, 19:26 GMT
Analysis: Inspectors provoke arguments in fateful meeting

By Paul Reynolds
News Online world affairs correspondent

As expected, the reports from the chief weapons inspectors provoked furious argument in the UN Security Council about whether Iraq is really disarming and failed to unite the opposing factions. Out of this is likely to come war.

It was not the fault of the inspectors. They sought to be factual. But from those facts the foreign ministers drew differing conclusions.

Dr Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector
Blix: Reports to UN have failed to break deadlock
Colin Powell the US Secretary of State described the reports as a "catalogue of non co-operation." The French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin countered with a question: "Why smash the instruments which have just proved their effectiveness?"

Deadline proposed

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, worried that a vote on a new resolution will not get a majority but not wavering in his condemnation of Iraq, proposed a compromise which sets a deadline for Iraqi compliance. The deadline suggested by the US, UK and Spain is 17 March.

In a speech in which he argued passionately and at times perhaps a little desperately, Mr Straw departed from his text to appeal for understanding, addressing the French minister directly as "My friend, Dominique."

The friend looked impassive and in turn proposed more inspections and more reports and even suggested that there should be a meeting of heads of government themselves. And he indicated more clearly than ever that France would use its veto.

France is playing hardball here, though it would reject the baseball reference. It sees this issue as a way of buildng a counterweight to American power not just for now but for the future.

After the meeting Dominique gave his reply to Jack. He rejected the proposed deadline immediately, in a friendly way of course.

ElBaradei more upbeat

So what about the facts? It was notable that the nuclear inspector Dr Mohammed ElBaradei in particular was upbeat about his work and appeared almost ready to declare that Iraq had no nuclear weapons programme.

Along the way he demolished the claim by the British Government in its dossier on Iraqi weapons last year when it said that "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium."

That claim, Dr ElBaradei declared was based on documents which were "not authentic" - that is they were forgeries.

Disputed claims

In the inner councils of MI6, the British intelligence organisation, there will be deep embarrassment.

He also disputed American claims that thousands of aluminium tubes which Iraq tried to import illegally were designed for centrifuges to enrich uranium. Not so, he said. They were, he concluded, designed for rockets as Iraq had stated.

Dr Hans Blix was not quite as clear cut in his account of the chemical, biological and ballistic inspections. He did report progress but it was mixed.
Mr Powell in his speech tried to bolster his position with more technical detail about the tubes' curiously high specification and took a swipe at Dr ELBaradei's agency which, he reminded the Council, had failed to detect Iraq's original nuclear weapons effort.

Dr Hans Blix was not quite as clear cut in his account of the chemical, biological and ballistic inspections. He did report progress but it was mixed.

Missiles not toothpicks

The destruction of missiles was, he said, a "substantial measure of disarmament" and "not the breaking of toothpicks".

He also cast doubt on American claims that Iraq had mobile biological warfare laboratories. There were some trucks, he noted, which were converted as food laboratories or for seed cultivation. Nor had any underground facilities been discovered.

But he also said that Iraq had still not provided convincing evidence that it had destroyed the anthrax and VX nerve agent it is suspected of retaining after the Gulf War. And interviews with scientists had not been free from "undue influences".

UN weapons inspectors at Al-Tuwaith, formerly a main site of Iraq's nuclear weapons programme
Testing times: Inspectors' role is under scrutiny
His conclusion that, with Iraqi co-operation, the inspections could be ended in months not years encouraged the opponents of war.

However, he had barely stopped speaking before the British Government swung back into action.

The British Foreign Office e-mailed a summary of Dr Blix's own "Draft Unmovic report on outstanding issues concerning Iraq's proscribed weapons inspection programmes." Dr Blix had told the Council that he would make it available and here it was, already in the British Government's hands and now sent out to the media.

The draft written report is more damning than the oral account given by Dr Blix to the Council.

It goes through each category - missiles, munitions, chemical weapons - and it lists Iraqi shortcomings. For example, it says that Iraq might have kept some Scud missiles and went into more detail about the alleged missing chemical and biological material.

Listening to the meeting and the way the arguments were flung back and forth, one was always aware that this body is probably not going to be the one to take the final decision.

The previous evening President Bush had all but declared war and it cannot be far off.

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