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Arms scout finds holes, not smoking guns

Baghdad/United Nations, Jan. 9 (Reuters): Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix said today Iraq had failed to answer a “great many questions” in its weapons declaration but his teams had found no “smoking guns” in their searches on the ground.

“We think that the declaration failed to answer a great many questions... and I will repeat that today,” Blix said as he prepared to brief members of the UN Security Council. “A more profound reading of the text has now confirmed the impression.”

Oil prices rose on expectations that UN inspectors could offer Washington fresh ammunition in its case for war against Iraq as they updated the council on their evaluation of the 12,000-page document Iraq submitted in December.

But Blix, in charge of chemical, biological and ballistic weapons inspections, echoed remarks made earlier this week by nuclear inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei by saying his teams in Iraq had yet to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

In the nearly seven weeks since inspections resumed in Iraq, Blix said: “We have been covering the country in ever-wider sweeps, and we haven’t found any smoking guns”.

The inspections are based on a November UN resolution which threatened the oil-rich state with “serious consequences” if it failed to cooperate with the UN teams.

Britain, Washington’s staunchest ally, said inspectors must be given more time to complete their work and cautioned against looking for triggers for war.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told his Cabinet that a January 27 formal progress report on inspections in Iraq should not be regarded as a deadline for a decision on military action.

“Weapons inspectors in Iraq must be given the time and space they need to do the job,” Blair’s spokesman quoted the Premier as saying. “January 27th, whilst an important staging post, should not be regarded in any sense as a deadline.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, US secretary of state Colin Powell also tried to deflect attention from January 27. “At that point, we will have to make some judgments as to what to do next... But it is not necessarily a D-day for decision-making,” Powell said.

France called on the US, Britain and others to give the inspectors intelligence on where to find the weapons that Washington insists Iraq is hiding and Iraq denies having.

Foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said he had written to all 14 other UN Security Council members to provide “all means” and “all information” to the inspectors. Powell said Washington was sharing intelligence with UN arms experts but had withheld some of its most sensitive information, waiting to see if inspectors “are able to handle it and exploit it”.

Iraq’s al-Thawra newspaper, the organ of President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, said the intelligence did not exist, and accused Washington and London of forming an “axis of deception”.

Blix said his weapons teams would begin interviewing scientists and other Iraqi experts about prohibited weapons within a week. But he did not say whether the Iraqis would be taken out of the country for that purpose, as the US has insisted.

Witnesses said three UN helicopters carrying inspectors had to turn back to Baghdad today due to bad weather conditions over northwestern Iraq. Other experts drove to at least seven sites in central Iraq, Iraqi officials said. In a television interview, Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan said the inspectors should ignore what he said was US pressure to gather information about Iraq.

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