U.N. Reports New Empty Chemical Warhead

AP Special Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.N. arms investigators found another empty chemical warhead on Tuesday as they pressed ahead with a dozen surprise inspections, on a mission in which President Saddam Hussein, in a rare interview, said he hopes they “reach the truth.”

“The question is whether the other side wants to reach the truth or whether it wants to find a pretext for aggression,” the Iraqi leader said in a television interview with British politician Tony Benn.

The chemical warhead found at the al-Taji ammunition depot, north of Baghdad, apparently was the 17th turned up since Jan. 16, when inspectors found 12 of the 122mm rocket warheads at a storage area south of the capital in their search for banned arms.

The Iraqis said those empty munitions were overlooked leftovers from the 1980s. Three days later, they said their own search uncovered four more, at al-Taji. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the single one found Tuesday, which a U.N. statement said was tagged and secured, was connected with those four.

In New York, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) prepared for a pivotal U.N. Security Council session Wednesday, at which he is to present what is said to be fresh evidence from U.S. intelligence of banned Iraqi weapons.

Powell’s appearance is intended to soften strong Security Council opposition to an American bid for U.N. endorsement of military action against Iraq — if the Baghdad government, in Washington’s view, has not sufficiently disarmed under U.N. resolutions prohibiting chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, failed in a bid Tuesday to convince French President Jacques Chirac to support quick military action against Iraq. Chirac stuck by his stand that the inspectors should have more time to determine if Iraq is still hiding banned weapons and that any decision to go to war rests with the Security Council — where France holds a veto.

In the TV interview, conducted Sunday in Baghdad and released on Monday, Saddam repeated Baghdad’s steadfast denial that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

“These weapons do not come in small pills that you can hide in your pocket. These are weapons of mass destruction, and it is easy to work out if Iraq has them or not,” he said. Iraq wants the U.N. inspectors to succeed, he said. “It is in our interests to help them (inspectors) reach the truth.”

The Iraqi leader also rejected renewed U.S. claims of links between his government and al-Qaida terrorists, and said his country doesn’t want war with America.

“Iraq has no interest in war. No Iraqi official or ordinary citizens has expressed a wish to go to war,” he said.

As the global debate intensified over the future of arms inspections in Iraq, and the future of peace in the Middle East, the U.N. inspectors continued their daily unannounced rounds in their hunt for signs of prohibited chemical, biological or nuclear weapons development.

The sites inspected Tuesday included the often-visited al-Rafah missile engine test installation southwest of Baghdad, and the large Qa Qa chemicals complex, also to the south, the Information Ministry reported.

One U.N. team in white overalls and helmets went to a water purification station in Baghdad’s al-Doura district, where, among other things, they checked on tanks of chlorine used for water treatment.

Chlorine can be a component of chemical weapons. Inspectors are believed interested in determining whether all chlorine produced at chemical plants for water treatment is, indeed, used for that purpose.

After some 500 inspections over more than two months, the arms controllers have yet to report finding any major violation of the U.N. ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly signaled impatience with the U.N. inspection process, which could take months, and the Pentagon is steadily building up tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region. A third U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, has now moved within striking distance of Iraq, having entered the Arabian Sea over the weekend.

And on the Iraqi side, thousands of Iraqi militia and army recruits marched Tuesday through the streets of Mosul in a display of military readiness.

Izzat Ibrahim, vice-chairman of the powerful Revolutionary Command Council, exhorted the troops to “resist any invader with all their might.”

The U.N. inspections resumed in November, after a four-year gap, to search for any weapons of mass destruction. During the 1990s, previous U.N. teams oversaw destruction of the great bulk of such weapons and their production programs in Iraq, under U.N. resolutions adopted after Iraq’s defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.

The chief U.N. inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, are expected in Baghdad this weekend for talks with Iraqi officials about unresolved issues to facilitate inspections, including the disputed U.N. plan to use American U-2 reconnaissance planes to overfly Iraq in support of the U.N. mission.

Their next report on Iraqi cooperation, on Feb. 14, could help tip sentiment in the Security Council for or against long-term inspection plans.

A delegation of members of the European Parliament, on a fact-finding mission to Iraq, visited a Baghdad hospital on Tuesday, and were briefed on child malnutrition, blamed on international economic sanctions against this country.

They also saw photographs of deformed Iraqi newborns, whose severe defects are widely blamed here on the U.S. use of depleted-uranium munitions during the Gulf War — a link not firmly established scientifically.

“It’s absolutely terrible knowing that children are being born with such serious defects and it’s something that could have been avoided,” said Parliament member Patricia McKenna of Ireland.

Another group visiting Baghdad — a dozen Americans of the “Code Pink Women’s Peace Vigil” — marched from the German to the French embassy to thank those countries for their stand against U.S. war plans. “Hold Strong. No War!” their banner read in several languages.