UNITED NATIONS—Secretary of State Colin Powell charged in a chilling indictment Wednesday that Iraq repeatedly has conspired to conceal banned weapons, has conducted grotesque experiments on humans and is allowing al-Qaida to operate in Baghdad.
The case presented to the United Nations—and much of the world watching on television—impressed some skeptics on the Security Council, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. France and others continued to press for more inspections, but did not rule out eventual military action.
"The use of force can only be a final recourse," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Offering reconnaissance photos, tapes of intercepted phone calls and accounts from defectors, Powell said the United States had "irrefutable and undeniable" evidence that Iraq was defying the United Nations and thwarting its weapons inspectors.
He said his multimedia presentation—including taped conversations between Iraqi officials—proved that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was concealing chemical and biological weapons and was working zealously and covertly to build a nuclear weapon.
"Saddam's inhumanity has no limits," Powell said.
In one of those intercepted conversations, two Iraqi military officers allegedly discuss a vehicle adapted to carry prohibited material that's in danger of being discovered by U.N. inspectors.
"We have this modified vehicle," one of them said. "What do we say if one of them sees it?"
In another conversation, Iraqi officials appear to discuss removing the phrase "nerve agent" from various communications.
"Given Saddam Hussein's history of aggression, given what we know of his grandiose plans . . . and given his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons?" Powell told the council at the end of a dramatic, 76-minute presentation scrutinized by much of a world edging closer to war.
"The United States will not and cannot run that risk to the American people. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-Sept. 11th world."
Administration officials said they would give U.N. members about 10 days to analyze Powell's information and hear another report Feb. 14 from top weapons inspectors.
Then, the officials said, the White House will decide on a final course of diplomatic action, most likely an attempt to obtain another resolution from the Security Council or issue key allies a final invitation to join in war against Saddam.
"The legal authority (for the use of force) is clear," said one American official, who asked not to be identified.
Iraqi officials accused the United States of fabricating evidence and said their country did not possess prohibited weapons.
Lt. Gen. Amir al Saadi, an adviser to Saddam, called Powell's presentation a "typical American show complete with stunts and special effects."
Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Aldouri said Powell's presentation contained "incorrect allegations, unnamed sources, unknown sources."
Powell's speech came at a crucial moment in the crisis, and with U.S. troops flowing to the Persian Gulf for a war that could start at the beginning of March. Most national television networks in the United States—and many overseas—interrupted regular programming to broadcast the speech live.
The importance of the day was underscored by this: Twelve of the 15 members of the Security Council were represented there Wednesday by their foreign ministers and one by a deputy foreign minister. The only exceptions were Syria and Guinea, who were represented by their ambassadors.
Powell wore an American flag in his left lapel. CIA Director George Tenet sat behind him. The council members—joined by Iraq's U.N. ambassador—sat around a large circular table with the secretary of state and listened attentively.
Reaction to the report was immediate, with some council members calling it compelling. Other influential members still insisted that weapons inspectors be given more time before soldiers march to war.
Of particular importance were China, Russia and France, who—like the United States and Britain—have veto power on the Security Council. All three argued for more inspections, and France called for tripling the number of inspectors.
At the same time, though, French President Jacques Chirac has ordered his military to prepare for possible action in the Persian Gulf, according to a senior European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"In the end, I expect the French will be there," the diplomat said.
In his presentation, Powell:
_ Showed photos that he said substantiated U.S. claims that Iraq "bulldozed and graded" land last year around an alleged chemical transshipment complex at al Musayyib.
"The topsoil has been removed," he said. "The Iraqis literally removed the crust of the earth from large portions of this site, in order to conceal chemical weapons evidence that would be there from years of activity."
_ Claimed that Iraq has a "stockpile" of 100 to 500 tons of chemical weapons, enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets. He also said that Iraq, in violation of U.N. mandates, was attempting to build missiles that could reach Russia and other distant countries.
_ Charged that nearly two dozen extremists linked to al-Qaida have established a base in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and "are operating freely there." He said the terrorist cell was headed by Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, whom the United States has identified as an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden.
Powell said al Zarqawi and his associates were developing ricin and other poisons at a camp in northeastern Iraq, in a Kurdish independent zone outside Saddam's control. Powell did not explain how Saddam could be held accountable for that.
In a television interview Tuesday, Saddam denied that his regime has any connection with al-Qaida. "If we had a relationship with al Qaida," Saddam said, "and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it."
In a related development, the FBI was expected to issue a report to Congress on Thursday saying al-Qaida remains a threat to Americans and could strike soon in the United States or abroad.
A federal law enforcement official familiar with the report, who asked not to be named, said intelligence intercepts had indicated increased activity by al-Qaida operatives in recent weeks, but that there was no specific threat.
_ Charged that Saddam's regime "has been experimenting on human beings to perfect its biological or chemical weapons."
"A source said that 1,600 death-row prisoners were transferred in 1995 to a special unit for such experiments," Powell said. "An eyewitness saw prisoners tied down to beds, experiments conducted on them, blood oozing around the victims' mouths and autopsies performed to confirm the effects on the prisoners."
_ Said the United States, based on information from defectors, was convinced that Saddam remained determined to acquire nuclear weapons.
"In truth, Saddam Hussein had a massive clandestine nuclear-weapons program that covered several different techniques to enrich uranium, including electromagnetic isotope separation, gas centrifuge and gas diffusion," he said.
Powell was attempting to convince skeptics at the United Nations, around the world and on Capitol Hill that the time for military action has arrived, but early comments suggested that his efforts did not immediately achieve that objective.
Only four of the 15 council members—Britain, Bulgaria, Chile and Spain—issued strong statements indicating support for the U.S. position.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw offered the strongest endorsement of Powell's presentation, saying the secretary of state had made "a most powerful and authoritative case."
German leaders have strenuously opposed military action, but opposition leaders in Germany, who also have staked out a strong anti-war position, reacted favorably to Powell's performance. Wolfgang Gerhard, the parliamentary chairman of Germany's Liberal party, called Powell's words "impressive and frightening at the same time."
On the other hand, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said: "As long as there is still the slightest hope for political settlement, we should exert our utmost effort to achieve that."
Powell's presentation found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle described it as "powerful, methodical and compelling."
Several lawmakers repeated their call for Bush to seek another resolution authorizing force from the Security Council. But many said they had nearly lost hope that a weapons inspections program in Iraq would contain Saddam.
During Wednesday's session, Powell urged the Security Council to preserve its credibility by backing previous threats with action.
"My colleagues, we have an obligation to our citizens," Powell said. "We have an obligation to this body to see that our resolutions are complied with."
His presentation included an audiotape between Iraqi military officers purportedly discussing the concealment of prohibited vehicles from weapons inspectors.
"We have this modified vehicle," one of them said. "What do we say if one of them sees it?"
The second voice says: "You didn't get a modified. You don't have one of those, do you?"
"I have one. . . ."
"I'll come to see you in the morning. I'm worried you all have something left."
"We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left."
(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn, Shannon McCaffrey, Carol Rosenberg, Daniel Rubin and Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): UNIRAQ
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