U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan today challenged the Bush administration's downbeat assessment of weapons inspections underway in Iraq, saying that Iraqi "cooperation seems to be good" following the inspectors' first week of work.
Annan said it is too early to make a conclusive judgment regarding Iraq's commitment to disarm, but added he was pleased the inspectors have had no trouble gaining access to all the sites they targeted, including one of eight presidential palace compounds they visited today. He urged the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to continue to cooperate with the inspection teams.
"It's only been a week and obviously the cooperation seems to be good, but this is not a one-week wonder," Annan said. "They have to sustain the cooperation and the effort and perform."
The secretary general's comments posed a stark contrast to statements by President Bush and other senior U.S. officials, who have offered a much more pessimistic assessment of the inspections so far. They pointed to a growing tug of war between the Bush administration and the United Nations over how to assess Iraqi compliance with U.N. disarmament demands in the run-up to this weekend's deadline for an Iraqi declaration on its weapons and missile development programs.
In a sign of the continuing divisions within the administration over Iraq policy, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell painted a far different picture. Speaking to reporters on a flight to Bogota, Colombia, Powell said the inspections "are off to a pretty good start," though he cautioned that much of the work so far has involved collecting baseline data and checking equipment.
Bush expressed mounting skepticism today about the likelihood that the inspections would stave off U.S. military action against Iraq, twice telling audiences in Louisiana that he will not wait out a prolonged game of "hide and seek."
Bush and other U.S. officials began a campaign on Monday to deflect attention from the daily comings and goings of the inspectors from sites in Iraq and toward what the administration says is the fundamental issue: Iraq's compliance with demands that it give up any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons programs, and long-range missile systems.
"The issue is not the inspectors," Bush said today in Shreveport, La. "The issue is whether or not Mr. Saddam Hussein will disarm like he said he would. We're not interested in hide and seek in Iraq. The fundamental question is . . . will he disarm? The choice is his. And if he does not disarm, the United States of America will lead a coalition and disarm him in the name of peace."
A senior administration official said that first, Bush may push for a more aggressive approach to inspections, possibly including such enhancements as a much larger force, simultaneous inspections of several sites, and multiple inspections each day.
White House officials dismissed Annan's more optimistic assessment of Iraqi cooperation. "It's too soon to say with any certainty, from the president's point of view," spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "But the overall picture, the president is not encouraged."
Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, continued to maintain that Iraq has destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction and that it has nothing to hide. "We declared everything and destroyed everything, so we have nothing," he said.
"We are cooperating with UNMOVIC in a good way." Douri added, referring to the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which is conducting the inspections along with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In Baghdad, a senior Iraqi official told reporters that Iraq would hand over the declaration of its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs on Saturday -- a day ahead of the Dec. 8 deadline set out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously by the 15-member body on Nov. 8.
Bush made it clear that he does not believe the statements by Hussein and other Iraqi officials that they are not hiding any weapons. "He says he won't have weapons of mass destruction; he's got them," Bush said in Shreveport. Later in New Orleans, Bush added, "He's a man who has got terrorist ties, a man who helps train terrorists. He's a threat and he's a danger."
On Monday, the inspectors searched a Baghdad missile design plant that made guidance and control systems for Scud missiles that Iraq used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The inspectors wanted to ensure that the installation was not involved in producing missiles capable of ranges longer than 93 miles, which are banned under earlier U.N. resolutions.
During their six-hour search, however, the inspectors discovered that several monitoring cameras and some of the equipment on which they had placed identification tags no longer were at the site, now called the Karama Co.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said today that some of the cameras and other equipment were destroyed when the United States bombed the site in 1998. The ministry statement said the other equipment sought by the inspectors had been moved to the offices of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate, a government agency that acts as a liaison to the inspectors.
The ministry said it had informed the U.N. inspections commission of the movement of the equipment in a meeting in Vienna in October, when Iraqi officials handed over large documents about the country's weapons-making equipment.
"The majority of the cameras were destroyed during the aggression and some parts of the monitoring system that weren't destroyed were transferred to the National Monitoring Directorate center for protection," the statement said. "They exist there now."
U.N. officials said today they did not believe the movement was a cause for immediate concern, noting that at a veterinary medicine plant visited last week, the inspectors were able to trace a fermentation unit at first thought to be missing.
"If it were to be moved for some illicit purpose, then of course it would be more serious," Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, told reporters in New York. "But in the first case there was a fermenter which had been moved, and they showed where it was. And in other cases I hope that there are good explanations, but this has to be found out."
The Bush administration, meanwhile, sought to postpone a vote for the second time in nine days on a resolution that would extend Iraq's authority to export oil for the next six months. John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asked the Security Council for a two-week delay in order to persuade council members to add about 40 items to a list of items that would require U.N. approval before they could be imported by Iraq.
Iraq is allowed to sell oil under U.N. supervision to buy food and medicine, and to rebuild the country's battered infrastructure. The Security Council typically renews the mandate for the oil-for-food program every six months, but the United States has insisted that the council first place new restrictions on the import of such items as atropine, which is used to treat medical conditions but can also be used as an antidote for nerve agents.
The latest dispute in the Security Council is expected to reopen a recently settled battle over what Iraq is allowed to import. Following several months of acrimonious negotiations, the council agreed in May to approve a 300-page list of items that required Security Council approval. But with the prospect of war in Iraq, the Pentagon is concerned that Iraq will import medicines and products that can be used to inoculate Iraqi soldiers from chemical agents or to interfere with U.S. communications equipment.
Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Baghdad and staff writer Glenn Kessler, in Bogota, contributed to this report. Allen reported from Shreveport, La.