-- U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice flew to New York today to press chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to exercise his authority to take Iraqi scientists out of the country for confidential interviews on Baghdad's secret efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The unannounced meeting, which was held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, underscores the Bush administration's conviction that candid interviews with Iraqi scientists provide the greatest hope of uncovering evidence of Iraq's efforts to rebuild its banned weapons programs. It also reflects mounting U.S. frustration with Blix, who has been reluctant to demand that Iraqis leave their country against their will.
President Bush expressed growing impatience with the inspections today, noting that more than six weeks of U.N. arms probes have failed to uncover evidence to support U.S. assertions that Baghdad maintains covert weapons programs. "Is Saddam Hussein disarming?" Bush asked at the White House before meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. "So far, I haven't seen any evidence that he is disarming. Time is running out on Saddam Hussein. He must disarm. I'm sick and tired of games and deception."
Officials familiar with today's talks said Rice pressed Blix to scrap plans to provide the U.N. Security Council with a report on the inspections in late March. In an interview Monday, Blix said he was planning to make the report under terms of a 1999 U.N. resolution that created his inspections agency. But such a move would be at odds with the administration's desire that Blix's next presentation to the council, scheduled for Jan. 27, mark the start of a final phase leading to a decision on whether to go to war.
Blix maintained that the end of this month will represent only the beginning of his inspections effort, and said he plans to outline to the council in March the "key remaining disarmament tasks" Iraq is required to fulfill before sanctions could be suspended. U.S. officials argued that Baghdad would have to disarm before the council could consider any steps to reward Baghdad.
A senior U.S. official said the meeting was also designed to ensure that Blix is "getting all the support that he needs. Which he is."
The United States has been stepping up its intelligence cooperation with Blix, including providing a list of dozens of Iraqi scientists that the administration believes could have crucial information about Iraq's weapons programs.
Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are to travel to Baghdad on Sunday to press Iraqi authorities to answer questions relating to Iraq's weapons programs and to insist that Iraq permit its scientists to meet privately with U.N. inspectors. Blix told the Security Council last week that he would begin interviewing Iraqi scientists in Baghdad this week, preferably in private. But he has insisted that he will not force Iraqi officials to leave the country.
The U.N. resolution mandating the inspections approved in November authorizes Blix to interview Iraqi officials without an Iraqi government representative present and also to invite the scientists and family members outside the country for confidential questioning.
With the Bush administration accelerating its military buildup in the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a possible war, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to the United States and other council members today to give the inspectors more time before considering military force. He urged the United States not to launch a unilateral military strike against Baghdad, and said that any decision to respond to Iraqi defiance should be taken by the council.
Annan said he is urging Iraq's neighbors to convince Baghdad that a commitment to "disarm and cooperate fully" with the U.N. inspectors offers the best chance of averting war. "I hope that the [Iraqi] leadership is listening or the leaders of the countries in the region, including Turkey, are sending the same message to Iraq," Annan told reporters. "If they do disarm and comply fully with the demands of the council, the region may not have to go through another military confrontation."
Key Arab leaders echoed Annan's calls for restraint. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meeting in Saudi Arabia today, issued a joint statement calling for "a peaceful resolution" of the conflict to "avoid the dire consequences that military confrontation would have for the Iraqi people."
Annan said he was "both optimistic and hopeful that if we handle this situation right and the pressure on the Iraqi leadership is maintained and the inspectors continue to work as aggressively as they're doing, we may be able to disarm Iraq peacefully without the need for war." But, he added, "if it were to come that Iraq continues to defy and disarmament has not happened . . . the council will have to face up to its responsibility and take the necessary action."
Annan said he is preparing for the worst in Iraq, and he cited concern about the "humanitarian fallout" of a war. He said U.N. relief agencies are preparing contingency plans to care for refugees and to manage the political and administrative tasks associated with a post-Hussein government. "We don't want to be caught unprepared," he said.