| British Royal Marines from the destroyer HMS Cardiff train near Iraq on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Washington/London, Dec. 18 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush met top aides today to discuss a likely announcement this week declaring Iraq in violation of a UN disarmament order.
The White House said Bush was “concerned about omissions” in Iraq’s 12,000-page arms declaration, which US officials say fails to disclose Baghdad’s suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes.
Washington has threatened to disarm Iraq by force if it does not come clean on its weapons.
But US officials said Bush would not cite a violation of the UN resolution as an immediate trigger for war. Warplanes from a US-British operation patrolling southern Iraq fired on air defences after Iraqi forces moved a mobile radar system into a “no-fly” zone, the US military said.
It was the fourth attack in five days on Iraqi air defence sites by planes monitoring the zone and coincided with a US military build-up in the region in case of possible war.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his country aligned with the US against Iraq, said there was widespread scepticism about Iraq’s dossier on its weapons but insisted moves to gear up for war were just contingency plans.
British foreign secretary Jack Straw said the declaration had “obvious omissions” and President Saddam Hussein’s “pretence” Iraq had no banned weapons would “fool nobody.”
A UN Security Council resolution adopted last month gave Iraq a last chance to come clean on its weapons programmes or face “serious consequences” — diplomatic language for war.
Baghdad, which denies having any nuclear, biological or chemical arms, presented the declaration on its arms programmes to the UN earlier this month.
US and UN diplomats have said a preliminary review suggested Iraq had failed to account for chemical and biological agents and did not explain why it has allegedly sought nuclear technology in recent years.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the US would have a formal response to the declaration soon. “The President is concerned about omissions in the declaration and about problems in the declaration,” he added.
Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix is due to make a presentation on the Iraqi declaration to the UN Security Council tomorrow.
Secretary of state Colin Powell said today he expected a final verdict on the dossier after Blix had spoken.
In Britain, defence secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed the country was preparing for possible war, but stressed conflict was neither imminent nor inevitable. British troops are expected to play a key role in any US-led military action.
A shipping source said the ministry of defence had placed its first order today for a large merchant ship to carry heavy armour and military supplies to the Gulf ahead of a possible strike. The government has told troops, reservists and arms manufacturers to gear up for a possible war.
“What we are doing is preparing in the event of military action being necessary,” Hoon told BBC Radio. “But I want to emphasise that no decision has been taken to launch military action.”
Blair said Saddam could still avoid war. “This is a contingency deployment. We want the inspectors to do their work, we want Saddam to comply with the UN resolutions. We use force where there is a breach of that mandate,” he said.
In Iraq, UN inspectors, starting the fourth week of their hunt for Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, searched at least nine sites today.
More than 100 experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission are in Iraq. But IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said he had no proof Iraq had tried to build a forbidden weapons programme in the intervening period.