With a possible war in the balance, United Nations weapons chiefs are taking their demands for Iraq to more actively assist inspectors directly to Baghdad this weekend.
Pressure mounted on Iraq after the discovery by weapons inspectors on Thursday of 11 unfilled chemical shells that had not been declared. UN officials said the 122mm shells were in "excellent condition," but that they do not yet constitute a "smoking gun" in terms of an Iraqi breach.
Hassam Mohamed Amin, head of the Iraqi Monitoring Directorate, said Thursday that the 122mm artillery rockets were not part of any illegal weapons of mass destruction program, and were part of a 1986 shipment to Iraq that were "expired 10 years ago." Iraqi officials say that all gaps in Iraq's weapons declarations will be addressed during the visit of Hans Blix, the top UN weapons inspector, which begins on Sunday. US officials said there would be no rush to judgment that might lead to war.
Senior UN officials make clear that this visit, and a weapons report due before the UN Security Council on Jan. 27, do not amount to a "last chance" for Iraq to come clean on any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
But widely diverging timetables are emerging between the US and UN over the inspectors' work that may alter America's countdown to war. Washington wants that date to mark the start of an endgame - even as inspectors press for more time as they intensify their efforts to find evidence of WMD.
Against the backdrop of Washington's military buildup in the Persian Gulf, and tough threats to use force to disarm Iraq, Baghdad has not actively impeded inspectors. But top UN inspector Hans Blix and atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei say they will press Iraq to "shift gear ... to active cooperation," by permitting private interviews with scientists, and by accounting for gaps that remain in Iraq's WMD declarations.
But they say they need more time - much more that the Pentagon's preferred winter timeframe to launch a war. Veteran inspectors say that no amount of extra time will be enough, if Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein does not do more to exhibit a change of heart.
The open doors shown to the UN are an "illusion of cooperation," says Richard Spertzel, a former US Army germ scientist, who was the UN chief bioweapons inspector in Iraq from 1994 to 1998.
"Two hundred inspectors could spend from now until doomsday parading that desert and not find [anything]," Mr. Spertzel says. "It's pointless, absolutely pointless ... until Iraq is willing to cooperate, until it is willing to appear to make a credible declaration, there is nothing to inspect or investigate."
UN teams are rushing to boost their numbers in Iraq to 150, to utilize an increasing number of helicopters and spy planes - and to act on recently arrived US and British intelligence data.
Iraq's 12,000-page declaration on Dec. 7 - billed as Baghdad's last chance to overcome years of concealment efforts and hide-and-seek games with UN inspectors - contained fewer data on its biological programs, at least, than Iraq had already declared in 1997.
"What does that tell you?" Spertzel says. He ticks off questions that remain about programs that were examined by nine UN inspections in 1997 and 1998, then picked over again by two panels of international experts.
Their conclusion was that Iraq's biological declaration was "inaccurate and incomplete." A Chinese scientist insisted as well, Spertzel says, that the final report indicate that it "wasn't certain" the program had been ended.
Still, no-notice inspections of the some 300 sites inside Iraq - including a second presidential palace on Wednesday - have turned up no evidence of WMD. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan this week urged patience, saying that the inspectors "are just getting up to speed."
While providing "prompt access," the Iraqis "need to do a good deal more to provide evidence if we are to avoid a worse development," Mr. Blix said Wednesday. "There's still time for the Iraqis to get themselves out of a very dangerous situation."
Blix has said his work will take months, and that he sees his Jan. 27 interim report as a starting point. He also plans to make a fuller report to the UN Security Council in late March, far beyond a timeline envisioned by the US.
President George Bush says "time is running out" for Mr. Hussein, and that he is "sick and tired" of Iraq's "games." US national security adviser Condoleeza Rice flew to New York Tuesday to impress upon Blix that he should tighten the timeline, and interview Iraqi scientists outside Iraq.
The Pentagon is increasing its troops to 150,000 in the coming weeks - toward a likely final total of 250,000, already capable of starting a war.
But some experts are wary of Baghdad's apparent at-your-service attitude, and suggest that Iraq is simply supremely confident that any WMD is well out of sight.
"It took us 4 1/2 years against a concealment mechanism to find the hard evidence of an offensive biological weapons program," says Terry Taylor, a British senior UN weapons inspector from 1993 to 1997. "The Iraqis have learned a lot from that process, and are more adept than they were at hiding things from the inspectors."
Which explains why the UN teams - which have been criticized in Washington for not being aggressive enough in tracking down WMD programs that the US and UK insist exist in Iraq - are demanding intelligence support.
"We found intelligence given to us in the 1990s to be absolutely invaluable and essential to our task," says Mr. Taylor, who is now head of the Washington office of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
"Don't expect some kind of startling revelation to come out," he says, noting that acting on such intelligence in the 1990s would often require two months of planning. Don't expect a smoking gun. The document trail, instead, "is just as valid a 'smoking gun' as a hunk of metal with bio agent in it."
Determining the scope of Iraq's WMD programs took hard sleuthing in the 1990s - the kind of work that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 of last November was meant to eliminate, by putting the burden of proof on Iraq.
Picking through past cases is instructive, experts say, if only as a way to analyze the threat posed by Iraq today. UN experts figured, when they were pulled out in late 1998, that Iraq still had 25 or so Scud missiles, armed with a mix of chemical and biological warheads. Video and other evidence pointed to Iraqi success in warhead separation in flight and above-ground detonations - key elements, Spertzel says, to spread biological agents.
Warhead fragments with anthrax tested by the UN indicated the existence of more than the five warheads Iraq said it had created and destroyed in 1991 - and were detonated in such a way that the anthrax may have been recovered. "If there were anthrax spores recovered in 1991, those spores are still good," Spertzel says.
"Don't underestimate the Iraqis - they are not dummies," Spertzel says. Weaponizing biological agents in just five years, as Iraq achieved in the late 1980s, is "amazing progress."