U.N. weapons experts returned to work in Iraq on Saturday, searching eight sites for signs Iraqis may have worked on biological, chemical or other banned arms during the three-week forced halt in inspections.
The state-run Iraqi News Agency insisted the searches disproved allegations that Iraqis used the standoff to hide lethal weapons-making equipment - allegations it called American “lies.”
In New York, however, the U.N. Special Commission overseeing Iraq upheld inspectors’ contention that Iraq has systematically concealed weapons. The panel rejected Russian proposals aimed at a quick end to the U.N. monitoring.
President Clinton also rebuffed an appeal from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to ease tough economic sanctions against Iraq. Clinton spoke with the Russian leader by telephone from the White House before setting out from Washington for day of campaign fund-raising.
As the two leaders spoke, U.S. warplanes soared into the sky from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf. The pilots were acclimating themselves to flying conditions in the Gulf in case the uneasy peace with Iraq once again crumbles.
All of roughly 75 U.N. inspectors - who include four Americans - took part in Saturday’s inspections, said Nils Carlstrom, the Swede who leads the U.N. monitoring office in Baghdad. There was no indication Iraqis interfered with the inspections, which included surveillance flights by helicopter crews.
“As to this moment, we have no problems,” Carlstrom said early in the day.
At a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq’s foreign minister, Mohammed Saeed alSahhaf, said six teams of inspectors visited several “industrial complexes” around Iraq dealing with missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He said the inspectors carried out their work “smoothly and efficiently.”
“We will continue to facilitate their work as we have agreed to with the Russians and the United Nations,” he said.
The inspectors arrived in Baghdad on Friday, a day after a Russian-brokered deal persuaded Saddam to readmit American monitors. In exchange, Russia pledged to work toward relaxing U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which block Iraq’s oil exports and have devastated its economy.
During Clinton’s 40-minute conversation with Yeltsin on Saturday, the two leaders agreed that Iraq cannot expel the inspectors, a senior U.S. official said. But there was continuing disagreement on which sanctions ought to be ended, he said.
In Denver, en route to Seattle, Clinton said he hoped the tense showdown with Iraq was over “but we’re not sure.”
The monitors’ next expected task is to try to return to suspected weapons sites to which Iraq had denied them access in recent weeks. Chief weapons inspector Richard Butler said in New York that the teams would concentrate on Iraq’s suspected stockpiles of VX nerve gas and mustard gas.
Iraq ordered the expulsion of all American inspectors on Oct. 29 after U.N. monitors issued a report saying that Iraq was hiding weapons. The Americans were expelled Nov. 13, leading the United Nations to withdraw the other 68 non-American inspectors in protest.
In response, the United States deployed the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Gulf and six F-117 Stealth fighters landed in Kuwait to boost forces in the emirate.
“Iraqis are still on alert regarding the military threat by the United States,” alSahhaf said.
He also indicated that women and children were still stationed around Iraqi military sites as human shields against U.S. attack.
“I think they will gradually diminish with the diminishing of the U.S. military threat,” al-Sahhaf said.
Al-Sahhaf suggested the crisis was the fault of Americans who “try to inspect places with no relation to their mandate, and they are always sensitive places.”
“We face problems whenever there is a certain element in a certain team - usually American individuals - trying to create a problem out of the context of the arrangement of how to do the work,” he said.
Arms monitors believe that Iraq is hiding key elements of its chemical and biological warfare programs, and experts have said the standoff could have given Iraq enough time to mix small batches of chemical and biological weapons.
During the three-week standoff, Iraq moved equipment away from some of the more than 100 U.N. cameras monitoring sites containing equipment that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons. U.N. inspectors said Iraqis also tampered with surveillance cameras.
Iraq has said it moved some equipment only to protect it from feared American air attacks
After Saturday’s inspections, the Iraqi News Agency quoted the chief of the Iraqi monitoring commission, whom it did not identify, as saying that “each team was assured that cameras and other monitoring equipment had been working normally and that they were not damaged.”
“It proves that the hysterical American propaganda suggesting that Iraq had moved the equipment to carry out banned activities were lies.”