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New inspectors boost weapons searches

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2002


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.N. arms specialists ramped up their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq Tuesday, augmenting their ranks to 70 inspectors and splitting into teams to conduct five simultaneous searches, including one of a remote uranium mine near the Syrian border.

The inspectors also have become more assertive in their field visits over the past few days, breaking into small groups, moving in several directions and questioning Iraqi officials with a seemingly greater intensity, according to witnesses and Iraqis in charge of facilities that have been searched. A helicopter that will give the inspectors more mobility and greater ability to conduct surprise searches has arrived in Baghdad and should be operating this week, U.N. officials said.

As the high-stakes inspections entered their third week, 28 specialists from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, arrived here Tuesday afternoon aboard a U.N. cargo plane, joining seven of their colleagues and 20 experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency who landed on Sunday. The IAEA and UNMOVIC, which are sharing inspection duties, had fielded 15 inspectors and two team leaders, who have since left, for the first two weeks of field visits.

"We are deploying inspectors as fast as we can," said Hiro Ueki, a spokesman for the inspection operation.

The presence of 70 inspectors, and reports that more are on the way this week, appears to put the United Nations on track to meet its goal of having 80 to 100 inspectors in Iraq by Christmas.

The experts visited 11 sites Tuesday, bringing the total number visited since inspections resumed Nov. 27 to more than 30. Several sites visited over the past few days, including the Saddam Center for Biotechnology in Baghdad, visited Tuesday, haven't been examined by previous groups of inspectors.

Some of the sites, particularly the sprawling Tuwaitha nuclear installation, have required multiple visits. A team from the IAEA searched the heavily bombed facility, which stretches for several square miles and has scores of buildings, for the fourth time. They pursued a physical inventory of materials from Iraq's past nuclear program. Ueki said it probably would take two more days to complete the inventory.

Although the inspectors are working their way down a prearranged list of sites prepared by U.N. officials, Ueki said the contents of a voluminous arms declaration Iraq submitted over the weekend could shift the strategy. "After going through the declaration, they may make some adjustments to their inspection plans," he said.

Among the 11 sites visited by the inspectors Tuesday was the Qaim Phosphate Complex, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad. The facility produced a type of refined uranium ore called "yellow cake" from 1984 to 1990 that played an important role in Iraq's nuclear program, which officials here say ended after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The facility was bombed during the war. Iraqi officials insist it's no longer producing uranium. Ueki said a team of IAEA inspectors, which plans to continue its activities there today, was verifying the status of destroyed equipment and determining whether any uranium extraction activities have resumed.

Preliminary analysis could come late next week

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. weapons inspectors said Tuesday that they expect to deliver a preliminary analysis of Iraq's recent weapons declaration late next week. Meantime, U.S. and other experts combed through the document looking to see if Saddam Hussein divulged all of his weapons programs.

At the White House, President Bush met Tuesday with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's new ruling political party, whose backing will be critical if Bush decides to use force to overthrow Hussein. Turkey borders Iraq to the north.

Bush and other U.S. officials promise to support Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and they lavished praise on Erdogan, who leads the Justice and Development Party. The group has its roots in Islamic parties now banned in Turkey.

"We join you side by side in your desire to become a member of the European Union," Bush said at an appearance with Erdogan.

At the United Nations, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix told members of the Security Council that he expected to be ready to give a "very preliminary assessment of the substance" of the declaration by Dec. 19.

-- Information from the Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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