Iraq pledged today to begin destroying its banned Al Samoud-2 missiles on Saturday, after government officials hold technical discussions with U.N. arms inspectors here, U.N. and Iraqi officials said.
In another display of cooperation, at least one Iraqi scientist involved in non-nuclear programs consented to a confidential interview and was questioned in private by the inspectors this evening, a U.N. official said. It was the first interview of a non-nuclear scientist since Feb. 7, when Iraqis called in for questioning began demanding that the sessions be tape-recorded.
President Saddam Hussein's government had agreed "in principle" to eliminate the Al Samoud-2 missiles in a letter sent to the chief U.N. weapons inspector Thursday. But the letter also demanded talks with inspectors about the method and timing. The demand for more discussions fueled questions about whether Iraq would seek delay through protracted negotiations and fail to meet a Saturday deadline set by the chief inspector, Hans Blix.
But the spokesman for U.N. inspectors here, Hiro Ueki, said Iraqi officials notified the inspectors today that the destruction would begin Saturday, after Iraqi officials and the inspectors discuss methods. Blix ordered the missiles' destruction because, his experts found, they fly farther than the range of 150 kilometers, or about 93 miles, allowed for defense by the U.N. Security Council at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destruction was expected to start around midday, or about 4 a.m. EST, Saturday.
Destruction of the missiles has become a highly visible test of Iraq's willingness to abide by a Nov. 8 Security Council resolution mandating total cooperation with the weapons inspectors and a complete account and destruction of any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in its arsenal. In that light, the pledge today seemed likely to complicate the Bush administration's efforts to win backing for a new Security Council resolution that would declare Hussein's government in breach of its obligations.
The resolution, which is co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, would be seen as a U.N. imprimatur for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, dismissed the Iraqi decision, saying the Bush administration had expected Hussein's government to destroy "as least some of their missiles." Fleischer insisted President Bush would not settle for anything less than full disarmament, which he said would not be accomplished though elimination of the missiles.
"The Iraqi regime is a deception wrapped in a lie," he said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key U.S. ally, also belittled the Iraqi promise, saying Hussein "never makes any concessions at all other than with the threat of force hanging over him."
But Blix, addressing reporters in New York, said destruction of the missiles would be "a very significant piece of real disarmament."
Iraq's promise was quickly seized on by the foreign ministers of France and Germany, whose governments, along with those of China and Russia, oppose imminent military action against Iraq and want the inspections to continue. The ministers said Iraq's pledge showed that a stringent weapons inspection process is the most appropriate way to disarm Iraq.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said at a news conference in Paris that the decision to destroy the missiles "is an important step in the process of the peaceful disarmament of Iraq."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said inspectors "are making progress and we should continue on this path."
Diplomats representing France and Russia, which have the power to veto any council resolution, said their nations have not ruled out voting "no" on the U.S.-sponsored resolution.
According to data Iraq provided to U.N. arms inspectors in December, several of the Al Samoud-2 missiles exceeded the 93-mile limit in test flights. Iraq contended the tests involved missiles without guidance systems or warheads and that they would have fallen within allowed limits if they had carried those components. But a panel of international experts convened by Blix concluded that the missiles, whose diameter also exceeds U.N. restrictions, would be able to travel beyond 93 miles even with warheads and guidance systems.
U.N. inspectors estimated that Iraq has between 100 and 120 of the missiles, diplomatic sources said.
In a letter sent to Blix on Thursday, Hussein's top weapons adviser, Lt. Gen. Amir Saadi, agreed to their destruction but called the order unwarranted. The decision "was unjust and did not take into consideration the scientific facts regarding the issue," he wrote. The technical discussions Saturday morning are expected to address Iraq's plans for the destruction, Ueki said. In a Feb. 21 letter to Saadi, Blix said the inspectors would select from a variety of methods, "such as explosive demolition, crushing, melting and other physical and chemical methods."
Ueki said the actual destruction work would be performed by Iraqi technicians "under the guidance and supervision" of U.N. inspectors.
It was not immediately clear how many Iraqi scientists were questioned tonight. A U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said interviews were arranged with more than one scientist, but the official could confirm only one session proceeded as planned.
It also was unclear whether the interview was tape recorded. One compromise solution under consideration by the inspectors and the government was to tape the sessions but keep the recordings under seal in the inspectors' custody. Iraqi officials have said the recordings are necessary to prevent the scientists' testimony from being mischaracterized, but the inspectors have expressed concern that making a recording, which likely would wind up in the government's hands, would dissuade the scientists from complete candor.
Although the U.N. resolution authorizing the latest round of inspections requires Iraq to provide "private access" to anyone the inspectors wish to interview, every scientist they approached initially insisted upon having an official present. On Feb. 6, as Iraq was facing growing pressure to demonstrate cooperation, it announced that one of its scientists had agreed to a private interview. The next day, two others also consented to confidential questioning. All three, however, worked for Iraq's weapons-monitoring directorate.
When inspectors sought to question other scientists before today, all insisted on making a recording, leading to concern among inspectors that Iraq was reneging.