WASHINGTON—An international team of missile experts assembled by United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has concluded that Iraq possesses missiles with a range far greater than allowed by U.N. resolutions, U.S. and U.N. officials said Wednesday.
Blix is expected to reveal details of the findings about Iraq's al-Samoud 2 missile during Friday's pivotal report to the U.N. Security Council. Any disclosure that Iraq is clearly violating U.N. mandates could help persuade reluctant nations that Iraq has no intention of complying with demands that it disarm.
"The experts found that the al Samoud is in breach of the limits," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte said on Wednesday.
Anxiety over the double-barreled threat of war in Iraq and terrorism at home intensified Wednesday as the White House accused Iraq and al-Qaida of forming "an unholy partnership" and anti-aircraft missiles, fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters shielded Washington.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, prepared to return to the United Nations for Friday's pivotal report from weapons inspectors in Iraq. The session is expected to mark the beginning of the end of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
"We are reaching a moment of truth as to whether or not this matter will be resolved peacefully or will be resolved by military conflict," Powell told a congressional panel.
Meanwhile, the rising possibility of terrorist attacks compelled authorities in Washington and elsewhere to move closer to a war footing.
Soldiers armed with Stinger missiles were deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, and posted on federal land around Washington to provide extra protection from air attack. The portable missiles home in on a plane's hot exhaust.
In addition, the U.S. Northern Command increased patrols over the capital area by Air Force fighters—F-16 Falcons and F-15 Eagles. The Customs Service also increased flights by Black Hawk helicopters assigned to search for low-level aircraft.
"Anytime there are threats that are perceived, the prudent thing to do is to take steps that seem to be appropriate," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who refused to disclose details.
Said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "A variety of actions have been taken to provide the greatest protections to the American people."
Fleischer also described the latest taped message that apparently came from Osama bin Laden as "a strong statement of alliance" between Baghdad and bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
"If that is not an unholy partnership, I have not heard of one," Fleischer said. "This is the nightmare that people have warned about, the linking up of Iraq with al-Qaida."
To build support for its possible war with Iraq, the Bush administration has been trying to convince reluctant allies and many domestic critics that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has strong links to terrorist groups. But observers overseas, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere said bin Laden expressed solidarity with Iraqi citizens, not with Saddam, and little evidence exists that Baghdad and al-Qaida are cooperating to plan new attacks.
Although intelligence officials said Wednesday that they had no specific indications of where, what or how al-Qaida might attack, CIA Director George Tenet again signaled alarm over Tuesday's audiotape, in which a voice identified as bin Laden's also urged followers to launch suicide attacks against Americans.
"Whether this is a signal of an impending attack is something we're looking at," Tenet said during a congressional hearing. "What he said has often been followed by attacks."
U.S. intelligence agents now think that one increasingly likely target for a terrorist attack is the big oil-loading facility at Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. An attack there would strike a dual blow at the Saudi royal family and at the U.S. economy
Intelligence agents also have picked up reports of a new, second tape by bin Laden, this one 56 minutes long, that could surface soon, the official said.
At the Capitol, where Tenet and Powell appeared separately, security guards were more heavily armed than usual. Usually equipped with pistols, they carried submachine guns Wednesday.
On the diplomatic front, Powell's aides said he would attend Friday's meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which will hear a crucial report from top weapons inspectors in Iraq. Powell's counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia also are expected to attend.
Word surfaced Wednesday that chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix might deliver a tougher-than-expected report and will disclose that Saddam possesses a model of missile—the al Samoud 2—with a range five times greater than U.N. resolutions allow.
Some council members think the revelation may convince skeptics such as Russia, France and China that Iraq has no intention of complying with demands that it disarm.
The reason: Experts who examined data on the missile came from seven nations with missile programs, including the veto-bearing five permanent council members—the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France—as well as Ukraine and Germany.
Although U.S. officials think Blix also may criticize Washington for failing to provide his inspectors with complete intelligence data, U.N. officials indicated that if his report appears to indict Iraq as still uncooperative, the council might meet Saturday. That could indicate that the council is close to agreeing that inspections have run their course.
During his appearance before the House International Relations Committee, Powell said he still thought he could win U.N. backing for using military force to disarm Iraq.
"All of the nations that we are now having debates with are, at the end of the day, allies and friends of ours," he said. "We have had our disagreements, we have had our fights in the past and we will always manage to find a way forward."
Some officials and analysts went so far as to predict that Washington could get 12 votes for such a resolution, with abstentions from Syria, Germany and France. But the senior administration official said the Bush team's goal was, first, to avoid any veto; second, to get three abstentions; and, last, to win at least seven to eight votes in favor of a U.S.-backed resolution, sufficient to win the Security Council's official support.
The French are circulating a proposal to double or triple the number of U.N. inspectors and give them additional support. The White House has rejected that idea.
In Brussels, Belgium, a third day of talks at NATO remained at an impasse over a U.S.-backed plan that would send anti-missile batteries and other defensive equipment to Turkey, which is worried about Iraqi retaliatory attacks.
France, Belgium and Germany have been blocking the proposal, a move that observers say has thrust the alliance into its deepest crisis in decades.
The United States offered a compromise Wednesday that eliminated a request to have NATO troops replace allied forces sent from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf. But France said NATO should defer action until after Friday's U.N. meeting.
In his testimony, Powell said the administration was interested in proposals for Saddam and his top aides to go into exile, and suggested that the United Nations might have a role in the process.
"We would have to get the whole infection out and then get on with the healing process," Powell said.
Still, preparations for war continued apace.
The Pentagon announced that 38,649 National Guard and Reserve troops were activated during the past week. That brought the total Reserve and National Guard active duty roster to 150,252.
In the Persian Gulf region, a small number of Canadian war planners joined coalition forces at a key command post, according to a U.S. military official. The Canadians arrived at the As Sayliyah base in Qatar, where U.S., British and Australian troops are stationed.
Canadian officials remain undecided over whether they will support an attack on Iraq. But it is important to position planners now, the officials said, in case more Canadian troops are dispatched.
(Ron Hutcheson, Shannon McCaffrey, Peter Smolowitz and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.