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U.N. inspectors criticize Iraq but ask for more time

UNITED NATIONS—Iraq hasn't accounted for thousands of chemical rockets, hasn't resolved questions about its anthrax stockpiles and hasn't fully complied with a last-chance U.N. resolution, top weapons inspectors reported Monday.

But the challenge confronting President Bush on Tuesday night when he delivers his annual State of the Union address to a nation—and a world—moving restlessly toward war was underscored by this:

Though the U.N. arms-inspection status report generally was unfavorable to Iraq, the inspectors also said they'd found no evidence of revived nuclear activity, and they repeatedly asked for more time to complete their search for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"Our work is steadily progressing and should be allowed to run its natural course," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the United Nations' chief nuclear-weapons inspector.

"Provided there is sustained, proactive cooperation by Iraq, we should be able, within the next few months, to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons program," he told the U.N. Security Council. "These few months would be a valuable investment in peace, because it could help avoid a war."

At the White House, where final touches were being applied to Bush's Tuesday address, spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Iraq is running out of time."

The president is expected to devote about half of his speech to the Iraqi crisis, but Fleischer said Americans "won't hear a deadline. They won't hear a declaration of war."

Along with diplomatic challenges, the administration faces logistical hurdles: Reports from the region Monday suggested that U.S. troops and equipment might not be ready for an invasion of Iraq until at least mid-March.

Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear that the administration isn't yet ready to seek U.N. approval for military action, but he also warned that Iraq is nearly at the end of a dangerous road.

He said Saddam Hussein and his aides had ignored "every exit ramp, diplomatic exit ramp that was put there for them." Iraq is concealing "vast quantities of lethal materials" and rockets that can carry weapons of mass death across international borders, he said.

"The issue is not how much more time the inspectors need to search in the dark," Powell said. "It is how much more time Iraq should be given to turn on the lights and come clean."

At the United Nations, ElBaradei and Hans Blix, who is in charge of the search for Iraqi biological and chemical weapons, sketched a portrait of a nation claiming to be cooperative but in reality paying only minimal heed to the will of the rest of the world.

Blix's comments were particularly pointed.

Iraq "appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance—not even today—of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace," he said.

The result, Blix said, was that inspections have been unable to substantiate either Iraq's assertions that it has rid itself of weapons of mass destruction or the Bush administration's assertions that Iraq is rearming.

So, the 60-day status report to the United Nations, once seen as a possible catalyst of immediate war, instead yielded a more complex mosaic of progress and frustration.

Though no evidence has emerged concerning nuclear activity, Blix said Iraq had failed to provide sufficient information concerning:

_Its stocks of anthrax, VX nerve gas and bacterial-growth media.

"There are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared," Blix said, "and that at least some of this was retained after the declared destruction date. It might still exist."

_About 6,500 chemical bombs that inspectors haven't been able to find.

_Programs to develop missiles with ranges longer than the United Nations permits.

Iraq would comply with the letter and spirit of U.N. resolutions if it presented more substantive documentation to support its claims that it has destroyed banned weapons, Blix said.

When documents are unavailable, he said, Iraq should provide witnesses to share information about past and current weapons programs. He said such interviews should be conducted without Iraqi officials present. Blix said that while Iraq had agreed to encourage scientists to give interviews in private, none had accepted the offer.

Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed al Douri said his nation would answer any remaining questions.

"We open all doors to Mr. Blix and his team, and I think if there is something, he will find it, but if there is nothing, certainly he will not find it," al Douri said.

The 15-member Security Council is scheduled to discuss the report Wednesday, giving council member 48 hours to consult with their governments

Meanwhile, new resistance to immediate U.S. military action emerged from allies abroad and political adversaries at home.

In Brussels, Belgium, European Union foreign ministers demanded that Iraq cooperate fully and immediately with the United Nations, but some also declared that the inspections must be allowed to run their course.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday's report showed that Hussein was "making a charade of inspection." German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, however, said inspectors "must be given all the time they need."

Britain has aligned itself closely with the United States, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is scheduled to meet Friday with President Bush at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Germany and France oppose military action at this point.

In another development, Turkey and the United States are "near agreement" on a deal for billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Turkey to cushion economic shock should war break out in the region, according to a senior Bush administration official who asked not to be identified.

At the same time, progress was reported toward winning Turkish agreement to let 20,000 U.S. troops pass through Turkey into northern Iraq in the event of war.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation. Opinion polls there show more than 80 percent of Turks opposed to a U.S.-led war with Iraq. Turkey is also a member of NATO however, and U.S. military planners hope to use Turkey as a springboard into Iraq.

The aid plan would provide up to $15 billion to Turkey, although Congress would have to approve any such package, which could be difficult unless Ankara cooperates with Washington in the event of war.

Closer to home, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Bush had offered "rotating reasons" for war, but not a persuasive case. He said the president's approach was alienating allies and could undermine the war on terrorism.

"If we have proof of nuclear and biological weapons, why don't we show that proof to the world?" Daschle asked during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. "In the end, we could win a war in Iraq, lose a battle against terrorism and leave America less secure."

Powell and other administration officials said the United States would consult key allies before deciding on its next move, a process that could take weeks, but not months.

The Bush administration also is considering declassifying what officials say is more information on Iraq's weapons programs and ties with terrorists. "This is `facts week,'" said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the Persian Gulf, U.S. military commanders privately voiced skepticism over Pentagon leaks suggesting that an invasion of Iraq could begin by late February.

About 60,000 U.S. troops already are stationed throughout the Gulf and deployment orders have been issued for more than 100,000 others, but the American ground presence in Kuwait remains at fewer than 20,000 troops, about a third of the number believed necessary.

Hundreds of troops from the U.S. Central Command in Florida are due to arrive over the next three weeks in the Gulf nation of Qatar, where the forward command post of a U.S. invasion would be. A base there is operational, but the military is still making improvements, enhancing communications, building a news media center and upgrading offices and living areas.

The pace of the buildup means that commanders might not be able to assemble enough troops for an invasion until at least mid-March.

"You could conceivably be two months or more away in order to satisfy every ground commander," said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander who oversaw the 1999 allied effort that ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo. "The force isn't there yet."

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(Ibarguen reported from the United Nations, Merzer from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown in Kuwait, Ron Hutcheson at the White House, Ken Moritsugu in Switzerland, Daniel Rubin in Berlin, Peter Smolowitz in Qatar and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)

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

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

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