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 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 17:12 GMT
Blair backs increased Iraq checks
Hans Blix and Tony Blair
Blair: People should not "second guess" Blix
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has praised the UN's weapons inspections chief for the increasing intensity of his team's work in Iraq.

Mr Blair met Hans Blix at Chequers, his official country residence, in a meeting given extra significance by the discovery of warheads in Iraq.

The prime minister stressed how important it was for Saddam to take full advantage of this opportunity to disarm

Downing Street spokesman

Their meeting came after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gave a defiant message that his people would repel any attack.

The prime minister's official spokesman said Dr Blix had briefed Mr Blair "in the round" about his team's work.

Mr Blair had voiced his "strong support" for Dr Blix.

"He welcomed the continuing build-up in the intensity of the inspection programme as more inspectors arrived in Iraq and as their resources improved," said the spokesman.

"The prime minister stressed how important it was for Saddam to take full advantage of this opportunity to disarm."

Suicide message

The UK has reacted cautiously to news of the 11 empty chemical warheads, saying it will not "second guess" the report inspectors will deliver later this month.

Earlier on Friday, Saddam Hussein insisted the Iraqi people and their leaders would make any invading force commit suicide at the gates of Baghdad.

In a televised broadcast to mark the 12th anniversary of the Gulf War, he compared the Americans to the Mongols who destroyed the city in the 13th Century.
Marine on board HMS Ocean
The UK has assembled a large taskforce

Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the message sounded like the "usual bellicose rhetoric" from the Iraqi leader.

"I am not sure it is worth making a response," Mr O'Brien.

"It is the sort of language we have heard for years from him."

'Smoking gun?'

Mr O'Brien said it was necessary to "wait and see" whether the empty warheads constituted a material breach of the UN resolution.

Downing Street said Saddam Hussein's silence over key weapons questions was "infinitely more important" than his rhetoric.

Dr Blix has already said the discovery is not a "smoking gun", but the White House has called the discovery "troubling and serious".
Hans Blix and Jacques Chirac meeting in Paris
Blix and Chirac met earlier on Friday

After his meeting with the prime minister, Dr Blix was flying to Cyprus before returning to Baghdad to meet his inspection team.

He is due to report to the UN Security Council in New York on 27 January.

Despite the cautious words from ministers about the latest discovery, it is being seen as potentially significant for Mr Blair's efforts to win over opponents of his Iraq policy.

Mr Blair has said he is confident of turning the tide of public opinion if war with Iraq becomes necessary.

Even before the discovery, Mr Blair had said finds in Iraq would help form public opinion.

Time worries

The prime minister acknowledged the British people would be happier if a second UN resolution was implemented before any military action against Iraq.

The inspections chief on Friday also met French President Jacques Chirac, who said the UN team needed more time.

But Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith had urged Mr Blair to tell Dr Blix that time was running out for Iraq.

"Time is running out and he [Dr Blix] really has to be clear in his mind whether he is going to get any assistance from Saddam Hussein. He must be clear about saying that."

Mr Duncan Smith said the discovery of chemical warheads in Iraq underlined that Saddam was lying about his weapons programme.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell argued UN Security Council members should not put "undue pressure" on the inspectors.

"The legitimacy of the inspection regime will depend not just on the authority of the UN, but upon a clear demonstration that the inspections have been painstaking, professional and patient," said Mr Campbell.

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  The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"Mr Blix is a key figure"

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See also:

15 Jan 03 | Middle East
16 Jan 03 | Scotland
15 Jan 03 | UK
15 Jan 03 | Politics
17 Jan 03 | Middle East
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