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U.S. may offer proof of Iraq's noncooperation, Powell says

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that the Bush administration expected to declare in two weeks that Iraq was not cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors, and might offer fresh public evidence to prove it.

Powell's remarks, matched by hardening rhetoric from U.S. officials, were the clearest indication to date that President Bush is rejecting appeals by European allies and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to give the inspections more time before considering military action against Iraq.

Blix is due to report to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 27 regarding Iraq's compliance with a resolution demanding its disarmament of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.

"We believe a persuasive case will be there at the end of the month that Iraq is not cooperating," Powell said in an interview with foreign journalists. A transcript of the interview, which took place Thursday, was released Friday.

A senior U.S. official said Powell's remarks were meant to signal that Washington wanted to quickly shift the international debate after Blix's report to what steps to take next, possibly including an invasion to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

If Iraq is not complying, "we ought to be resolute enough to say so," said the senior official, who requested anonymity.

Powell's remarks do not signal that war is imminent. Diplomatic maneuvering could go on for weeks after Blix's report. And all the U.S. forces that would be necessary to invade Iraq won't be in place until mid- to late February.

Blix, who is due in Baghdad on Sunday, angered American officials by suggesting this week that he could produce another report in late March, which would scramble Bush's diplomatic and military timetable for confronting Saddam.

French President Jacques Chirac, meeting with Blix in Paris, backed his request.

"Wisdom obliges us to respond to their request and give them the necessary time to be able to deliver serious conclusions which can convince the international community," Chirac said.

But the senior U.S. official said Washington wouldn't sign on to a "business as usual" inspection process that could drag on for months.

While the Bush administration would prefer U.N. backing for any action against Iraq, it has reserved the right to act unilaterally, a point Powell repeated in the interview.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, meanwhile, called the weapons inspectors' discovery in Iraq on Thursday of a dozen warheads capable of carrying chemical weapons "serious and troubling."

Fleischer said the warheads weren't mentioned in the 12,000-page declaration of banned nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs that Iraq gave to the Security Council last month.

Powell strongly suggested that the United States would make public more evidence that Iraq is hiding banned weapons. However, he indicated it wouldn't be a so-called "smoking gun."

"I don't know of a secret weapon that we're suddenly pulling out of a vault or out of an office somewhere," he said.

U.S. officials have said they have evidence that Iraq has deceived the inspectors, but that it shows a pattern of misbehavior rather than a single dramatic revelation.

Bush's aides have debated how much of this information to release, as some officials are worried about exposing U.S. intelligence sources. A second senior official, who also asked not to be named, said no final decision on public disclosures had been made.

But American officials, who have rejected demands in the past that the United States supply proof of Iraq's noncooperation, now acknowledge that they must.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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