New York, Feb. 14: In a setback to the Bush administration’s plans to go to war in Iraq, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix today cast serious doubts on evidence presented by US secretary of state Colin Powell alleging Baghdad’s failure to comply with international demands for destroying its weapons of mass destruction.
In a report to a momentous meeting of the UN Security Council, which has brought foreign ministers of its five permanent members and Germany, Blix said he had seen no evidence, as alleged by Powell, that Iraq was cleaning up weapons sites before UN inspections.
“In no case have we seen convincing evidence that the Iraqi side knew in advance that the inspectors were coming,” Blix said.
As Powell listened gravely, anger and impatience writ large on his face, Blix referred to his recent dramatic audio and video presentation before the council.
Speaking about a satellite photo shown to council members by Powell as an Iraqi munitions depot, Blix said: “The reported movement of munitions at the site could just as easily have been a routine activity...”.
In an effort to mollify Powell, the chief weapons inspector then added: “Our reservation on this point does not detract from our appreciation for the briefing” by the secretary of state.
In a rebuttal of US’ argument that there was a case for military action against Saddam Hussein because he was hiding prohibited weapons, Blix said his inspectors had “not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions which should have been declared and destroyed”.
He said just because many prohibited weapons and other items banned under UN resolutions have not been accounted for, “one must not jump to the conclusion that they exist”. In the same breath, he qualified his statement with the proviso that “such a possibility is also not excluded”.
If they exist, he said, Iraq must present them; if not, Baghdad should present evidence to that effect.
With the impression gaining ground that a war is only weeks away, Blix did not pull any punches unlike in his report to the Security Council last month. On that occasion, he had tried to please all sides.
He said Iraq’s development of its al Samoud missile was in excess of the range for missiles permitted under UN resolutions and was, therefore, “proscribed”.
Barring these minor infractions cited by Blix, his report was as close as possible to an exoneration of Saddam Hussein from US allegations.
In any case, Blix made it clear without actually saying in so many words that what the regime in Baghdad was up to did not call for war.
The report prompted an immediate call by France for a Security Council meeting on March 14 to hear another report of weapons inspections.
The most immediate impact of the Blix report was on the stock exchange. After days of decline in anticipation of war, stock indices here shot up.