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Iraq's weapons-declaration omissions concern U.N., Bush officials

UNITED NATIONS—Serious problems with Iraq's recent weapons declaration are not an immediate justification for war, officials at the United Nations and in Washington said Wednesday, a day before U.N. weapons inspectors were to deliver their preliminary assessment of the document.

But U.S. and British officials on Wednesday said their initial conclusions were that Iraq isn't taking advantage of a final opportunity to disarm that the Security Council offered last month.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the declaration has "obvious omissions."

"This will fool nobody," Straw said. "If Saddam persists in this obvious falsehood, it will become clear that he has rejected the pathway to peace."

"We are not encouraged that they have gotten the message or will cooperate based on what we have seen so far in the declaration," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. He added that conversations with other permanent members of the Council—Britain, China, France and Russia—had led him to "sense that they also see deficiencies in the declaration.

However, Powell said the United States would "stay within the U.N. process and we will share our analysis of the declaration with other members of the (Security) Council and discuss how to move forward in the weeks ahead."

At the United Nations, diplomats from several nations said they expected Thursday's briefing by inspectors to be a step in the process, rather than a trigger for a U.S.-led war.

France, a permanent Security Council member, believes there are deficiencies in the Iraqi declaration, according to a senior French diplomat. But French and other officials argue that the key moment should come after Jan. 27, when Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, is to issue his first formal report on Iraqi compliance with U.N. weapons inspections.

"The international community must stand by the inspectors and respect their conclusion," French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Wednesday in Qatar.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that after a partial review of the 12,000-page declaration, President Bush was "concerned about omissions in the declaration and about the problems in the declaration."

Though the administration has repeatedly expressed skepticism that Iraq is willing to disarm, Fleischer's comments were the first time the White House has spoken publicly about problems with the declaration Iraq submitted this month under a Security Council resolution.

The White House spokesman said Bush would "continue his deliberative and his thoughtful approach" to dealing with Iraq.

Blix and head nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei were scheduled to give their views of the declaration on Thursday.

Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for Blix's team, said that "any analysis is going to be pretty thin," noting that the inspectors are likely to offer only preliminary impressions, along with updates on the progress of inspections inside Iraq.

Bush's top national security advisers met Wednesday to discuss the U.S. approach on Iraq, and Powell was expected to give a more detailed U.S. response to the Iraqi weapons declaration on Thursday, after Blix and ElBaradei give their initial assessment.

Blix shares the U.S. and British view that there are big gaps in the declaration, said diplomatic officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified. "I think that you probably will get some sense that he doesn't find all the answers to the questions that he started out with," said one diplomat.

U.S. officials and foreign diplomats, while declining to reveal specifics, said the declaration fails to say what happened to chemical and biological weapons material that previous U.N. weapons inspectors in a 1999 report said was unaccounted for.

They said the document consists almost entirely of histories of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs prior to 1998 and maintains Baghdad's stance that it no longer has such programs.

The American strategy is expected to include tougher rhetoric toward Iraq, pressure on the U.N. inspectors to conduct much more aggressive inspections and possibly a new ultimatum on Iraq backed by accelerating U.S. and British troop movements to the Persian Gulf region, probably starting shortly after Jan.1, U.S. and other Western officials said this week.

One element of the strategy is for Blix and his team to interview Iraqi weapons scientists outside of Iraq. Blix has expressed reservations about that tactic, partly out of concern that the scientists or their families would face danger from the regime.

Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf met Blix in New York on Tuesday and proposed "practical steps" to allay his concerns, a State Department official said. The official declined to elaborate on the U.S. proposals, but administration officials said that if necessary, relatives of key officials should be given safe haven outside Iraq.

The 10 elected members of the Security Council were given versions of the declaration on Tuesday after inspectors removed sensitive information on nuclear and other weapons proliferation. The five permanent members of the council, all of them nuclear powers, were given unedited copies early last week.

Colombian Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso, who holds the council's rotating presidency, said the guidance of inspectors would be vital for countries, such as his, which "have no reference point" for evaluating the declaration.

On Wednesday, Syria, a member of the council, returned its copy of the declaration to the inspectors. The decision to give elected members an edited copy was an "unacceptable discrimination. Either we take a full copy or we don't take anything," a Syrian diplomat said.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.