UN inspectors question key Iraqi scientists


UN inspectors yesterday opened a new phase in their operations inside Iraq, questioning key scientists in the hope they will provide evidence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons which the Bush administration elieves will act as the trigger for military action.

As inspectors prepared to move in more helicopters and equipment to search for traces of chemical and biological programmes, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, said his team of nuclear inspectors were "in the process of interviewing people inside Iraq in private".

However, he said the agency had still not worked out how they could question any of them outside Iraq. "We need to be concerned about their safety, either providing them asylum, or if they decide to go back that their safety and their families are secure," he told CNN.

The new focus came as an American military unmanned Predator spy plane was assumed to be lost after being fired at by an Iraqi aircraft in the southern no-fly zone. It was the first such incident since last month's Security Council resolution.

Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said he did not view the incident as an escalation of the dispute with Iraq.

British sources said yesterday that any Iraqi scientists willing to provide information would almost certainly be given asylum here but suggested there was a problem with countries neighbouring Iraq, including Turkey and Jordan.

Mr Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, has said there could be no question of "abducting" Iraqi scientists, while those who might want to leave voluntarily would have to consider the consequences for any family left behind.

UN nuclear inspectors have a list of over 1,000 Iraqi scientists and technicians who could help them, UN sources said yesterday. The problem facing inspectors searching for chemical and biological weapons or their precursors is that they are easy to hide.

One of at least three sites visited yesterday by UN inspectors was a closed baby milk plant where the manager told reporters later: "It was an ordinary visit and we answered all their questions." The manager, Mr Youssef Taher, did not say what banned material the plant had been suspected of producing.

Whitehall officials admitted yesterday that evidence would be extremely difficult to obtain even with the intelligence Britain and the US insist they have. "The lifespan of a particular piece of information is very short," said one.

He added that the Iraqis could be moving tell-tale evidence around daily.

The US says it is reluctant to give the UN inspectors its intelligence because they might leak it.

UN officials want all the help they can get and are recruiting more staff to add to the 160 on the ground in Iraq. They are also opening a second base at Mosul in northern Iraq.

Mr Blix will give his next report to the security council on January 9th.

British officials say the government is prepared to play a waiting game, but the question is for how long? Britain and the US hope inspectors will find "the smoke, but not the smoking gun" in the coming weeks. This, they hope, will be enough to persuade the security council that the Iraqi regime is in "material breach" of UN resolutions, the trigger for war.

Yesterday, the war of words continued with Iraq's ruling Ba'ath party newspaper, al-Thawra, accusing the "the administration of little Bush \ launching a mad campaign based on lies and accusations".

In Rome, a top Vatican official said a "preventive" war by the US against Iraq was not justified under the UN charter and could lead to "a type of anti-Christian, anti-western crusade" in the Islamic world.

In the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's foreign minister, said every effort must be made to avoid a war, which he said would have "disastrous" consequences. - (Guardian Service)

The United Arab Emirates said yesterday it was responsible for arresting Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashiri, identified as al-Qaeda's alleged chief in the Gulf, and handed him over to the US. The US said in November it was holding Nashiri, a suspect in the bombing of the American warship Cole in Yemen's Aden harbour in 2000, which killed 17 US sailors. - (Reuters)