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U.N. report deals setback to U.S. calls for military force against Iraq

UNITED NATIONS—U.N. inspectors have not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and are slowly gaining Baghdad's grudging cooperation, top weapons inspectors said Friday in a measured report that derailed U.S. efforts to broaden support for war.

The inspectors also said they still cannot account for 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, and an exasperated Secretary of State Colin Powell warned members of the U.N. Security Council that Saddam Hussein was playing "tricks" on them.

But the chief inspectors' dispassionate report rallied anti-war forces on the council and deepened fractures between the United States and several close allies, led by France, on the eve of weekend anti-war protests across Europe.

"In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who led the Russians, Chinese and others in opposing military action so long as inspections hold promise of disarming Iraq peacefully.

A majority of the 15-member council called for more inspections, and criticism of the U.S.-British position produced several bursts of applause, a rare event in the council chamber that violated protocol but revealed the depth of sentiment.

Only the British and Spanish supported the U.S. view that Saddam's failure to comply with U.N. disarmament mandates will soon require a U.N. decision on whether to disarm him by military invasion.

By the end of the busy and discordant day, which also included a late two-hour closed Security Council session, Powell said he would not immediately press for a new U.N. resolution authorizing military action.

Arms inspectors are scheduled to report again to the Security Council in early March.

At about the same time, the United States and Britain will be ready to launch an attack on Iraq, with or without new U.N. authorization. Together both nations are assembling around 200,000 troops and massive war equipment in the Persian Gulf region.

Powell told Knight Ridder late Friday that U.N. diplomacy must come to a conclusion soon. "I don't think that point is too far off in the distance," he said.

At one point during the day, Powell referred to the "fireworks" that erupted between the United States and France, but he told Knight Ridder that compromise still seemed possible.

"I haven't lost my optimism that it's possible to pull the international community together at the end of the show," he said. He said he would brief President Bush before deciding what—if anything—to include in any proposed new U.N. resolution.

During the Security Council session, one of the most weighty in recent history, chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei said that 115 inspectors have examined more than 300 sites and found no evidence of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

"The results to date have been consistent with Iraqi declarations," Blix said.

He also took an indirect slap at Powell, who last week presented satellite photos to demonstrate that Iraq sanitized some suspicious sites before inspectors arrived.

"We have noted that the two satellite images of the site were taken several weeks apart," Blix said, as Powell listened from the other side of the horseshoe-shaped table. "The report of movement of munitions at the site could just as easily had been a routine activity."

At the same time, Blix confirmed that Iraq possesses a banned missile—the al-Samoud 2, which can reach beyond the 93-mile limit imposed in 1991 by the Security Council.

He said he would tell Iraq that the missiles and some of their engines are "proscribed," but he stopped short of saying he would ask that they be destroyed.

In addition, Blix said Saddam has been slow to make scientists available for private interviews—as ordered by the United Nations—and still has not accounted for 1,000 tons of chemical agents. He called that a matter "of great significance."

"I must not jump to the conclusion that they exist," he said. "However if they exist, they must be presented for destruction."

He also said that Iraq must "squarely tackle" remaining questions about Iraq's thus far unproved claim that it destroyed its stocks of anthrax and the nerve agent VX.

Blix said his inspectors were able to conduct private interviews last weekend with three Iraqi scientists, who "proved informative." Those interviews, required by U.N. resolutions, were a major point of dispute between weapons inspectors and Iraqi authorities.

But Blix said that no additional interviews have been conducted "on our terms."

"I hope this will change," he said. "We feel that interviews conducted without any third party present and without tape recording would provide the greatest credibility."

ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said his aides have "to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq."

He assured the council that his team can proceed without complete assistance from Iraqi authorities.

"It is possible, particularly with an intrusive verification system, to assess the presence or absence of a nuclear weapons program in a state even without the full cooperation of the inspected state," he said.

Appearing frustrated, Powell set aside his prepared notes and delivered an uncharacteristically emotional response, arguing that Saddam was toying with the U.N. inspectors—and with the United States.

"These are all tricks that are being played on us," Powell said of improved Iraqi compliance on some matters and Iraqi moves to form commissions and pass legislation.

Still, the United States and Britain, which had been planning to seek a new U.N. declaration against Saddam, appeared to be increasingly isolated.

Most members of the council said it was clear to them that inspections have not reached a dead end, were proving effective and should be expanded rather than halted.

Representatives of France, Russia and China said war at this time was not justified. All three hold veto power on the council.

"The onerous responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace," said de Villepin, the French foreign minister.

Said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov:

"There is movement, movement in the right direction, and we cannot ignore that. Force can be resorted to, but only when all other remedies have been exhausted. As the debate shows today, we have not yet reached that point."

The comments by de Villepin and Ivanov drew unusual applause inside the chamber. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer asked for order.

Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., said he took some comfort from the inspectors' reports and he repeated Iraq's claims that it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.

"An empty hand has nothing to give," he said.

In Rome, where he met with Pope John Paul II, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said he was pleased by the reaction of most Security Council members and he again denied that Iraq has ties to terrorists.

"They invent scenarios," he said of U.S. officials. "This is a bad American movie. It is not reality."

Still, Powell told the council that the time for action had arrived, and he repeated the administration's assertions that Saddam is strengthening links with terrorists.

"We cannot wait for one of these terrible weapons to turn up in our cities," Powell said. "More inspections—I am sorry—are not the answer .

"Notwithstanding all of the lovely rhetoric, the questions remain. We must continue to put pressure on Iraq, put force upon Iraq to make sure that the threat of force is not removed."

Powell was seated next to Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador, who joined the council as a guest. Before the session began, they nodded to each other in greeting. They did not shake hands.

The British and Spanish representatives, as expected, supported the U.S. stand.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said Iraq is the only nation to have launched missiles on five of its neighbors and invaded two neighboring Muslim states.

He said Saddam has "killed, without any justification, hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iran, in Kuwait and in Iraq itself."

The comments of Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio indicated that her nation has moved further toward believing that more inspections are not the answer.

She said she listened to the reports with "eagerness to hear just one sentence that is an affirmation of active immediate cooperation by Saddam Hussein's regime. The inspectors have not been able to make that affirmation."

Expanding inspections under these conditions, she said, would send the world a "message of weakness."

In a related development, Iraqi officials announced that Saddam issued a presidential decree Friday that bans all weapons of mass destruction. The move, which came hours before the inspectors delivered their reports, forbids the production or acquisition of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Iraq already has insisted that it destroyed all such weapons and terminated programs to develop them, and the United States called the move an empty gesture.

"Isn't that very convenient the morning of our meeting?" Powell said. "So, it's more of the same game-playing, in my judgment, that's going on."

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(Ibarguen and Johnson reported from the United Nations, Merzer from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel at the State Department contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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ARCHIVE GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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