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Inspectors take arms test to Saddam palace

Baghdad, Dec. 3 (Reuters): UN arms inspectors searched one of President Saddam Hussein’s lavish palace compounds in Baghdad today in the biggest test of Iraqi cooperation since inspections for weapons of mass destruction resumed.

Iraq promised today to meet a UN deadline to hand over a declaration on its arms programmes, but insisted it had no weapons of mass destruction to confess to.

In line with Baghdad’s policy of at least apparent compliance with UN inspections in the hope of averting a threatened US attack, an Iraqi official said a statement would be provided on Saturday — a day before time runs out.

Teams of inspectors entered al-Sojoud palace, one of several presidential compounds across Iraq, in central Baghdad. Inspections of presidential palaces had been a source of confrontation between Iraq and UN inspectors in the 1990s.

One team, in six white UN cars, drove up to the palace gate accompanied by Iraqi officials in a separate vehicle. A witness said guards at the entrance were surprised by the UN convoy’s arrival and at first refused to open the gate. Some inspectors left their cars and demanded they be let in.

“Open the gate, we want to come in,” an inspector told the guards. “We can’t, we are waiting for orders,” one guard replied. The inspector protested and a few minutes later the gates were opened. Other inspectors entered from another gate.

According to UN Security Council guidelines, access to sites should be immediate and unfettered.

Journalists were not allowed in and Iraqi guards were visibly uneasy at the unexpected visit. But the reporters were allowed a peek inside the grandiose palace ground after the UN experts and the accompanying Iraqi “minders” left.

The journalists were guided through a palm-lined driveway surrounded by rose gardens. Ornaments stood at the entrance and throughout a domed inner-courtyard.

No Iraqi officials talked to the press inside the palace, which has marble fountains and golden elevator doors. A plaster model of the compound showed damage from Western bombardment during the 1990s.

The inspectors left the compound after one hour and 45 minutes without speaking to journalists.

It was the first presidential palace inspection since the UN experts returned to Baghdad last month, armed with a tough Security Council resolution giving Iraq a last chance to disarm or face a possible war led by the United States.

Both sides agreed on special procedures for the inspections in 1998, a few months before the inspectors pulled out of Iraq for alleged lack of cooperation.

UN documents say Saddam’s eight palace compounds contain more than 1,000 buildings — luxury mansions, smaller guest villas, office complexes, warehouses and garages.

In a swoop on a suspect sites today, they said they had discovered some equipment tagged by previous inspection teams and several UN monitoring cameras had gone missing from a missile factory.

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