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U.N.-Iraq Showdown Heating Up Checks Blocked, But Scant Hard Evidence

The Iraqi regime and the United Nations appeared locked on a renewed collision course Thursday as the head of the U.N. commission charged with disarming Iraq detailed new instances of Baghdad’s resistance to weapons inspections.

The report by Richard Butler, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, to the Security Council suggested Iraq has increased the number of facilities off-limits to weapons inspectors and curtailed the amount of information it would provide.

But on a more hopeful note, Butler reported that there had been little evidence uncovered so far that Iraq used a recent three-week break in inspections to illegally manufacture biological or chemical weapons, as some U.N. and American officials had feared.

Butler said inspections conducted since the monitoring team was readmitted to Baghdad had found only one “possible” instance of misuse of equipment at a chemical plant. That case is under investigation.

In its response to the report, the Council divided along predictable lines, with the United States and Britain denouncing Iraqi intransigence and Russia seeking to accentuate the positive.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. mbassador, accused Iraq of backsliding on its obligations under the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War. British Ambassador John Weston said that if Iraq wants the Council to lift economic sanctions imposed on Baghdad, “the inspection commission has to be able to go where it needs to go, when it needs to go.”

The United States began working on a new denunciation of Baghdad for consideration by the Council, perhaps as early as Friday.

But Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov cited with approval the report that Iraq apparently had not taken advantage of the inspectors’ absence from the country to manufacture forbidden weapons. He repeated Russian opposition to using military force to push Iraq into compliance.

Butler was reporting on three meetings he and other commission officials had with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz on Sunday and Monday in Baghdad.

Relations between Iraq and Butler’s commission have so deteriorated that they cannot even agree on what was said then. Nizar Hamdoun, Iraq’s U.N. representative, issued his own report to the Council accusing Butler of misrepresentations.

Both sides claim to have video or audio tape verifying their versions.

Butler reported that Iraq at the sessions again refused to permit inspectors into “presidential and sovereign sites,” which include residences, offices and resorts of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In last week’s meetings, Aziz expanded the number of off-limits sites by adding “secret rooms” of select military and intelligence facilities, Butler said. Hamdoun denied this. Butler said Aziz told him “civilian sites and private residences” only could be inspected with owners’ permission.

Commission staffers said Thursday that the net effect of the Iraqi actions was to broaden the restrictions on inspectors.

Under the Gulf War cease-fire, the commission must certify that Iraq has eliminated its ability to wage nuclear, chemical or biological warfare and destroyed its long-range missiles before the Council can end the economic sanctions that are crippling the country.

Iraq contends it has demolished its proscribed weapons. But Butler’s inspectors have evidence Iraq may be hoarding hundreds of tons of a potent chemical weapon called VX and may retain the capacity to build biological warheads and missiles to deliver them.

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