The Iraqi government believes it has done enough to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and now regards a war with the United States as almost inevitable, a top adviser to President Saddam Hussein said today.
Providing a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of Hussein's secretive, authoritarian government, his chief adviser on weapons issues, Gen. Amir Saadi, suggested Iraq would not alter its policy toward the inspections and overall disarmament. Although U.N. and U.S. officials demand that the government work actively to resolve conflicts over the private questioning of scientists, the handover of documents and a host of other issues, Iraq believes that it is already "doing all the things we think can prevent war," he said.
With tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops headed to the Persian Gulf region for a possible invasion of Iraq, Saadi voiced a sense of resignation that war could not be averted. "When preparations for war go to this extent, if we go by the First World War and the Second World War, simply mobilizing is enough to make the process irreversible," said Saadi, a British-trained chemist regarded as one of Hussein's most trusted lieutenants. "After you mobilize, that's it. It takes a momentum of its own."
Calling the U.S. military buildup "far in excess of what's reasonable," he said: "One tends to think it's coming no matter what we do."
Saadi rejected the Bush administration's contention that Hussein bears the responsibility for averting war, arguing that the only way to end the showdown would be for the United States to step back. "There are things which can prevent war: for instance, the worsening of the [U.S.] economic situation, demonstrations all around the world, countries showing exactly how they're feeling by talking frankly -- not necessarily publicly, but behind the scenes -- to the United States to make them come to their senses," he said. "But I don't think it is up to us."
Although Saadi insisted his government has encouraged scientists to submit to confidential interviews with U.N. inspectors, three more Iraqi scientists today rebuffed requests to be questioned in private. Frustrated U.N. officials had regarded today's attempt to arrange private interviews as a last chance for Iraq to improve perceptions of its compliance before the United Nations' top two weapons inspectors report to the Security Council on Monday.
In a wide-ranging interview with a small group of American reporters, Saadi indicated that Iraq's leadership may now have as little faith as many in the Bush administration that continued inspections could stave off war. Officials here say the focus on issues such as private interviews and the permission to fly U-2 surveillance aircraft over Iraq is a ploy to divert attention from the fact that the inspectors, according to a preliminary report delivered this month, have not yet found any evidence that Iraq possesses or is developing weapons of mass destruction.
"They keep changing the goal posts," said Lt. Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin, the head of Iraq's weapons-monitoring directorate, who also participated in the interview.
Saadi said even if Iraq were to force its scientists to agree to private interviews, which he called an "unreasonable demand," he predicted it would not satisfy the Bush administration. "There will be something else," he said. "It won't end there."
The Bush administration insists Iraq, which acknowledged producing tons of chemical and biological warfare agents in the 1980s, still is holding on to many of those weapons, despite Iraqi claims that they were destroyed. Administration officials argue that Iraq should proffer more evidence to support its contention instead of forcing inspectors to hunt for clues about the scope of the country's arms programs.
Administration officials also contend they have strong evidence that Iraq has active programs to manufacture chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Saadi dismissed those claims, noting that allegations advanced by the administration last year that Iraq was using imported aluminum tubes to enrich uranium have largely been dismissed by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"It was a lie and they fell for it," he said.
In other areas, though, Saadi said it would be impossible for Iraq to make similar demonstrations that it is free of weapons of mass destruction. "The onus is on us to prove we don't have any," he said. "Is that credible? Is that just? How can you prove a negative?"
Iraq's war footing has become increasingly evident in recent weeks. State-controlled newspapers have warned people to prepare for a conflict. The government-owned television channel has broadcast snippets of Hussein's frequent pep talks with top military commanders. Branch offices of Hussein's Baath Party have organized rallies in which men and women are encouraged to parade around with machine guns and hunting rifles. According to diplomats, the party has also been handing out more weapons to civilians and encouraging them to take to the streets and fight in the event of an American attack.
Saadi said he still held out hope that "wise men and wise minds" would find a way to avert war. He pointedly criticized Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz as people unwilling to heed "any wisdom." But he said he regarded President Bush as someone who "listens," and he expressed hope that Bush would observe calls from Europeans and Arab leaders to allow the inspections to continue.
"There is still time to hold back," he said.
He dismissed suggestions that Hussein should step down or go into exile as "ridiculous." Nobody in the Iraqi government, he said, "is serious about this."
He also denied U.S. allegations that Iraq is planning to set fire to its oil wells in the event of an invasion. "It's preposterous," he said. "There are no such plans. It's our wealth. It's for the Iraqi people."
Shortly before Saadi spoke, the inspectors attempted to conduct private interviews with three Iraqi scientists. But all of them, according to U.N. and Iraqi officials, refused to speak to the inspectors without a government monitor present. A team of nuclear inspectors, who flew by helicopter to the northern town of AlJesira to speak to a scientist, eventually decided to conduct their interview with a government official in the room, a U.N. spokesman said.
Amin said he tried to persuade the scientists to attend the interviews without minders, but he said they objected out of concern their testimony could be distorted or misrepresented by the inspectors. The inspectors also tried to change the scientists' minds, spending more than an hour with each of them to urge them to speak confidentially, Amin said.
"Our role is just to make that person available," he said. "It's for that person himself to say" if he wants to be questioned.
Under a Security Council resolution passed in November, Iraq is required to provide "private access" to anyone the inspectors wish to interview. U.S. officials regard Iraq's ability to produce scientists for private interviews to be a key test of its compliance with the resolution.
U.S. and U.N. officials said they believe the Iraqi government could compel its scientists to talk, but instead is dissuading them from speaking privately with inspectors.
Last week, the inspectors had asked to interview six scientists in private, but all of them refused to do so without a minder. On Monday, after two days of discussions with senior officials here, Hans Blix, the chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), and IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei announced they had reached an agreement with the Iraqi government on 10 procedural issues, the most important of which was that Iraq would start to encourage its scientists to accept private interviews.
After Blix and ElBaradei left on Monday, UNMOVIC inspectors asked Iraqi authorities to summon six scientists for interviews. They, like the three today, refused to talk without a government official present.
A U.N. official said the inspectors' inability to conduct private interviews would be "mentioned prominently" in a report Blix and ElBaradei are scheduled to present to the Security Council on Monday. "This was their chance to show they could be more cooperative," the official said. "But they threw it away."
Early this morning, a man carrying an iron rod was apprehended by U.N. security guards as he tried to enter the U.N. compound here. The guards, who found three knives on the man, turned him over to Iraqi authorities, U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said.
As the man approached the compound, Ueki said he was heard shouting: "Foreigners and strangers are hurting Iraq. Leave Iraq alone."
Less than an hour later, around 8:30 a.m., as a convoy of inspectors was departing the compound and merging into a busy expressway, a young man dressed in a black leather jacket and clutching a notebook jumped in front of the lead vehicle. When the driver got out of his car, the man jumped into the driver's seat and refused to leave, sparking a dramatic confrontation with Iraqi authorities assigned to guard the compound.
As a green-uniformed soldier attempted to pull the man out of the car by grabbing his neck and then his arm, he screamed in Arabic that he did not want to leave the car. With the inspector sitting in the passenger seat looking on impassively, the man began shouting in English.
"Save me. Save me," he wailed. Then, a few moments later, he repeated the refrain: "Save me please. Save me please."
Eventually, U.N. security guards escorted him out of the car and into the compound, where he was immediately handed over to Iraqi authorities after determining his notebook was empty. Ueki said the guards turned him over because the incident occurred outside the compound, where "the U.N. has no jurisdiction."