| A TV grab of the wreckage of the US Predator spy plane shot down by Iraq. (Reuters)
Baghdad/Washington, Dec. 24 (Reuters): The US said it was capable of fighting and winning not one war but two if need be, after the setback of seeing one of its unmanned spy planes shot down over Iraq.
While secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld upped the rhetorical pressure on both Iraq and North Korea, twin targets of Washington’s drive against weapons of mass destruction, UN experts pushed deep into Iraq in their hunt for banned weapons.
With Christmas approaching, the inspectors promised to keep up the pace of their checks during the holiday, while Iraq accused the US of amassing enough forces in the region to wage a world war.
North Korea has diverted some attention from Iraq by scrapping international agreements and restarting a nuclear power programme that Washington fears could provide the basis for an atomic bomb.
But Rumsfeld warned it late on Monday against thinking Washington was distracted.
“I have no reason to believe that you’re correct that North Korea feels emboldened because of the world’s interest in Iraq. If they do, it would be a mistake... We are capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other... Let there be no doubt about it,” he told a reporter.
The US has threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it does not comply with a tough UN Security Council resolution setting out conditions for disarmament.
At the same time, it has urged UN inspectors to be more aggressive in their visits to suspect weapons research sites, to take weapons scientists out of Iraq for questioning, and to step up the pace of their interim reports.
On Christmas eve, UN arms experts checked at least seven suspect sites, going farther south from Baghdad than at any time since they resumed inspections on November 27.
A chemical weapons team headed towards an undisclosed site in the direction of the port city of Basra, while other chemical, nuclear, biological and ballistics experts went to sites nearer the capital.
“We will continue work throughout the holiday. I am sure the inspectors will get a day off here and there but they are in Baghdad to work and they will work their butts off as long as they are there,” said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna.
The IAEA said on Monday it had begun interviewing Iraqi scientists and was ready to take them abroad if needed.
But Gwozdecky urged states to guarantee protection for these scientists and their families. The US, in particular, has yet to offer blanket guarantees of asylum to the Iraqis the inspectors question. “Governments have to step forward and offer protection and even asylum to those people,” he said.
“We don’t control governmental decisions in this regard, so that is something we cannot control the pace of. We are prepared to use the authority, but we have to think it through.”
At the UN in New York, sources familiar with Iraq’s arms declarations said it had failed to account for a quantity of around 6,000 chemical bombs that its own documents said had been left over from its 1980-88 war with Iran.
Washington has made no secret of its build-up of forces across the region to back its threat to wage war on Iraq.
Iraq, which insists it has scrapped all banned weapons programmes, yesterday shot down an unmanned US Predator spy plane worth $3 million over the south of the country.
Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz told an Arab solidarity conference in Baghdad the same day: “Is it possible that all this military build-up... is merely for targeting Iraq and changing the Iraqi ruling regime as they alleged' It is a strategic build-up for a war at the level of a world war which is at this stage targeting all the Arab nations”.
Turkey, a Nato member and one of Washington’s closest allies, is expected to provide airbases and other support if the US does go to war. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul summoned his top ministers yesterday for talks on Iraq, and a top Israeli general was in Ankara to meet his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday.