A senior Iraqi official said tonight that Saddam Hussein's government has not yet decided whether to comply with a demand from the United Nations' chief weapons inspector to destroy a powerful new missile system.
Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin said the order from chief inspector Hans Blix that Iraq eliminate its Al Samoud 2 missiles and 380 illegally imported rocket engines by Saturday was "still under deep consideration." Although Blix has called his order nonnegotiable, Amin said Iraq viewed the issue as a "technical matter" that could be solved through further discussions with U.N. arms officials.
"There are many alternatives," Amin said at a news conference tonight. "We are studying it."
Amin insisted that Iraq was "serious about solving this" but offered no hint of when the government would announce a decision or what it would be.
The destruction of the missiles has become a test of Iraq's compliance with a Nov. 8 U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that the country rid itself of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as missiles whose range exceeds 93 miles.
According to data Iraq provided to U.N. arms inspectors in December, several of the Al Samoud 2 missiles flew beyond the 93-mile limit in test flights. Iraq contends the tests involved missiles without guidance systems or warheads, and that if they included those components, the missiles would have fallen well within the approved range. But a panel of international experts convened by Blix concluded that the missiles, whose diameter exceeds U.N. restrictions, would be able to travel beyond 93 miles even with warheads and guidance systems.
For Iraq, which is facing the imminent prospect of another war with the United States, the order to destroy the liquid-fuel missiles poses a vexing predicament. If Iraq fails to follow the order, France and other Security Council members that oppose a new resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq could be persuaded to support such a measure. The French government has insisted that Iraq comply with the destruction order.
But if Iraq accedes, it would be forced to forgo one of its newest weapons without a guarantee that its compliance would stave off an increasingly likely U.S. invasion. On Saturday, President Bush said that even if Hussein gets rid of all of its prohibited missiles, it would not cause him to soften his call for a resolution declaring Iraq in breach of its obligations to disarm and authorizing the use of military force to topple Hussein's government.
Amin said the destruction of the missiles "would affect our fighting capabilities, but it would not finish them or affect them greatly. This missile represents only one aspect of our defensive capabilities. We have comprehensive capabilities."
A few Iraqi political analysts said they expected the government to agree to destroy the missiles even if it would not forestall a war. They suggested that the government might regard the political benefit of visible compliance with the inspectors on this issue as outweighing the strategic loss of an important weapon, hoping perhaps that such a step would lead either France or Russia to veto a resolution authorizing force.
"They will almost certainly destroy the missiles," said Wamid Nadmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "It's their best option."
In a declaration to U.N. inspectors last year, Iraq said it had 76 Al Samoud 2 missiles. U.N. officials and Western military analysts say they believe Iraq now has more than 100 of the missiles, which some analysts have said could be outfitted with warheads containing chemical or biological agents.
U.N. inspectors have been trying to identify as many of the devices as they can. Over the past week, teams of inspectors have fanned out to production facilities, military bases and ammunition storehouses to affix small metallic identification tags on the missiles.
To meet the Saturday deadline, U.N. officials said Iraq would have to make a decision by early this week because it likely would take a few days to transport all the missiles to a location where inspectors could supervise their destruction.
One team of inspectors observed a stationary test of an Al Samoud engine today, the United Nations said in a statement. It was not clear whether the test was arranged by the Iraqi government to provide additional technical data to the inspectors in an attempt to reverse Blix's decision.
Amin said he hoped his government would be able to work out its differences with the United Nations over the missiles "without interference from the Americans or the British."
Iraq has begun to dig trenches at sites where it claims to have unilaterally destroyed chemical and biological weapons in the early 1990s so that U.N. inspectors can examine the soil for proof, Amin said. A U.N. team is due in Baghdad next Sunday, he said, to visit the sites and hold technical discussions about Iraq's past programs to develop the VX nerve agent and anthrax bacteria.
Amin also said U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying under orders from the inspectors have conducted three flights over Iraq, logging 17 hours in the air. He said he expected French Mirage planes to also begin flying over the next two days.