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US demands more aggressive hunt in Iraq

Baghdad/Washington, Dec. 4 (Reuters): UN experts searched Iraq’s main nuclear facility and a military base today but the US demanded a more aggressive hunt for any banned biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

Starting a second week of inspections, experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) swooped on the al-Tuweitha plant run by Iraq’s nuclear power authority in Salman Bak, 20 km south of the capital.

Tuweitha Nuclear Research Centre, the main nuclear programme site, has been monitored by the IAEA in the past.

It has housed several research reactors and included activities such as plutonium separation and waste processing, uranium metallurgy, neutron initiator development and work on a number of methods of uranium enrichment.

Tuweitha is the location of the Osiraq reactor bombed by Israel in 1981. Several tonnes of uranium have been under seal by the IAEA at Tuweitha since 1998.

Inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) searched the Muthanna military site 75 km north of Baghdad.

The desert site is alleged to be a chemical agent facility and perhaps once a biological weapons facility, according to a British assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Iraqi soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols kept journalists from entering the site when the inspectors went in.

The US has urged chief UN inspector Hans Blix to pursue a more intensive, multi-pronged operation to “stress” the Iraqi system and make it harder for President Saddam Hussein to conceal his weapons programmes.

A US official told Reuters yesterday that using a much bigger inspection force and going on multiple inspections day after day would put Iraq to the test around the country.

Blix resisted the US suggestions during a meeting at UN headquarters on Monday with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the official said. Blix was not immediately available for comment.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the burden was on Iraq to disclose any weapons of mass destruction, as ordered in a UN Security Council resolution on November 8.

“The United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The UK knows that they have weapons of mass destruction. Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence programme knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” he told a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

Under the UN resolution, Iraq has until Sunday to provide a detailed list of its weapons programmes. Baghdad, which denies having weapons of mass destruction, has said it will provide the UN with a list of its arms programmes by Saturday.

Rumsfeld said the onus was on Iraq to come clean on any banned weapons programmes and steer UN inspectors to them for destruction.

“If the responsibility is on Iraq to demonstrate that it does not have weapons of mass destruction... it is not for some country to go in and give them a clean bill of health, it is for Iraq to give itself a clean bill of health by saying: “Here’s honestly what we currently have, here’s where it is, here’s what we’ve done, please destroy it for us’.”

On a visit to Turkey, a US ally neighbouring Iraq, US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz said today that Washington was ready to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in air bases that might be used in a war against Baghdad.

“I’m quite confident that we will in fact have a significant level of Turkish participation,” Wolfowitz told reporters in Ankara where he met Turkish civilian and military leaders.

“Now it should be clearer than ever that Saddam Hussein is surrounded by the international community.”

Muslim Turkey wants to avoid war in Iraq, fearing it will cause regional turmoil and damage its shattered economy. But the Justice and Development Party government has been at pains to shake off suspicions about its Islamist roots and show its commitment to its US ally.

Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis said the Nato ally would open its bases to the US for any military operations against Iraq authorised by the UN.

Turkey’s foreign ministry later said there was no final decision on opening up air bases.

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