UNITED NATIONS—The chief U.N. weapons inspector told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that a two-month search for banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in Iraq has produced "no smoking guns."
But Hans Blix said that "the absence of `smoking guns' and the prompt access which we have had so far, and which is most welcome, is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites, whether above ground, underground, or in mobile units."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was even more emphatic. "The problem with guns that are hidden is you can't see their smoke," he said. "We know for a fact there are weapons there. The heart of the problem is Iraq is very good at hiding things."
Still, the lack of proof that Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons presents a fresh hurdle to the Bush administration's hope of winning strong domestic and international support for an invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Bush administration may find it difficult to win Security Council support for an attack unless U.N. inspectors unearth evidence of illicit weapons programs that violate a series of U.N. resolutions passed since Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
At least two Security Council members—France and Syria—indicated following Blix's briefing that they are far from ready to authorize invasion.
French Ambassador to the U.N. Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said that the inspections are going well and "there is no reason to give now a time limit."
Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Mikail Wehbe took issue with U.S. and British assertions that Iraq is hiding banned weapons, saying "they are just an excuse for more accusation against the Iraqi people."
Wehbe said an invasion would destabilize the entire Middle East.
Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov seemed to chastise the bellicose rhetoric coming from Washington, describing the briefing as a "professional exercise, done by professional people who are presenting their views as they go, and that this should not really warrant some political agitation around briefings like this one."
While President Bush has said that the United States is prepared to invade Iraq alone if need be, polls show that a majority of Americans will not support an attack that is not authorized by the United Nations and is not mounted by an international coalition.
Politics aside, other problems could limit U.S. military options.
Among them is Turkey's refusal so far to allow U.S. forces to use its bases and territory to attack Iraq from the north, a key requirement of Pentagon planners.
Popular opposition to a war on Iraq is high in Turkey and throughout the Muslim world, as well as in traditional U.S. allied nations, including even Britain, the Bush administration's staunchest supporter.
Time is also becoming a factor. Beginning this month and reaching a peak in April, fierce sandstorms and thundershowers lash the Iraqi desert. Then comes summer, when temperatures top 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some 60,000 U.S. troops are now in the Persian Gulf. The number is due to double over the next four weeks as part of an accelerated U.S. buildup. More than 100,000 U.S. personnel in the United States and Europe are awaiting orders to deploy. Britain has also begun building up its forces in the region.
Bush, while stressing that he has made no decision to invade, is threatening to oust Saddam by force unless the Iraqi dictator gives up his alleged weapons of mass destruction programs. Iraq insists that it ended its programs after the 1991 Gulf War, and that it has no hidden arms stockpiles.
Blix, chief of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, gave the Security Council a closed-door progress report on the weapons inspections that resumed in November after nearly four years.
They also presented an analysis of a 12,000-page declaration that Iraq insists is a final accounting of its illicit weapons programs and their destruction. Iraq submitted the document last month.
ElBaradei said that interviews of Iraqi personnel have been hampered. He said some interviewees have requested the presence of Iraqi government observers rather than conducting the interviews in private.
In addition, regarding concerns about Iraqi efforts to procure aluminum tubes that could be used in centrifuges as part of a nuclear weapons program, ElBaradei said a preliminary study showed that the tubes would have to be modified for use in a centrifuge and "are not directly suitable for it."
Iraq said the tubes were for use in a rocket program. The sale of the tubes to Iraq, however, was apparently a violation of a 1991 arms control resolution.
"To date, no new information of significance has emerged regarding Iraq's past nuclear program or with regard to Iraq activities during the period between 1991 and 1998," ElBaradei told the council.
Before briefing the council, Blix and ElBaradei told reporters that Iraq has failed to fill in major gaps in the document despite requests for information. The pair is to travel to Baghdad later this month.
In his speech before the council, Blix said Iraq's declaration failed to account for a number of proscribed materials, including chemical bombs and chemical agent VX.
They called for better Iraqi cooperation, especially on requests for interviews with Iraqi scientists without the presence of regime officials.
"We do not feel that the Iraqi side has made a serious effort to respond to the request we made" for more information, Blix said.
U.S. and British officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were heartened by comments from a majority of the 15 Security Council members that indicated mounting impatience with Iraq's treatment of the U.N. inspectors.
"There was a strong sense that Iraq's cooperation has been procedural and passive, not slamming doors in anyone's face, but not proactive and the kind that we need," said a British diplomat.
Blix also disclosed that Iraq admitted in its declaration that it violated a 1990 U.N. arms embargo by importing missile engines and raw ingredients for solid missile fuel.
On the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, Blix said: "We now have been there (Iraq) for some two months and have been covering the country in ever wider sweeps, and we haven't found any smoking guns."
He said UNMOVIC required more time and that his team has begun receiving intelligence on alleged Iraqi weapons sites "from several sources." He was apparently referring to the United States and other counties.
"We have gone to, I think, about 125 sites already, and some of them were not visited before, and there will be more," he said. "And as more intelligence comes in, there will be more sites visited. I'm confident that we will get more intelligence."
Blix, a veteran Swedish diplomat, has previously emphasized that UNMOVIC needs more intelligence help because searching the California-size country of 25 million is a daunting task.
The United States was initially hesitant to provide UNMOVIC with intelligence because of concerns about compromising its sources. But Washington recently began to give such data to the inspectors.
Bush administration officials sought to downplay Blix's comments about the lack of evidence to confirm that Iraq is pursuing banned weapons.
"We will wait to see what the inspectors find in Iraq and what events in Iraq lead to," said Fleischer.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, speaking after the council meeting, called on Iraq to give up weapons of mass destruction "it maintains, even today.
"Anything less is not cooperation and will constitute material breach," he continued, using diplomatic language that the United States and Britain could employ to argue for a U.N. vote for an invasion.
The next significant date will be Jan. 27, when Blix is scheduled to submit a formal report on UNMOVIC's findings to a public session of the council. The council is to meet again with him on Jan. 29 for closed deliberations.
U.S. defense officials, meanwhile, disclosed new preparations for a possible war.
The Navy announced that virtually all 173,000 active-duty Marines and 100,000 reservists will be prohibited from retiring for a year beginning Jan. 15.
The last time such a "stop-loss" order was issued was before the 1991 Gulf War.
Air Force officials said that deployment orders for a significant—but unspecified—number of combat aircraft were issued on Dec. 27, including three supersonic B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in Oklahoma and F-15 fighters from bases in Virginia and North Carolina.
Helicopters from Nevada and transports from Georgia were also dispatched to the region, along with unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft from Nevada.
Air Force officials said Thursday that none of these aircraft had yet left the United States.
(Ibarguen reported from the United Nations, Landay from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.