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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Iraq Acts to Counter Accusations

Baghdad lets inspectors privately interview a scientist and says it seeks an Al Qaeda suspect.

February 07, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.N. weapons inspectors interviewed an Iraqi biological warfare specialist in private Thursday night, the first time the country had allowed a scientist to meet alone with those searching for weapons of mass destruction.

The interview was announced by Gen. Amir Saadi, an advisor to President Saddam Hussein for the weapons inspection program.

Earlier, Iraq had announced that several of its scientists were willing to be interviewed in private -- a step demanded by the United States and Britain as an indication that Iraq is willing to make full disclosure of its weapons.

There was no information on what was discussed in the

3 1/2-hour session with the scientist, identified only as Sinan.

A government official, meanwhile, repudiated charges that Iraq is cooperating with a suspected terrorist leader who was cited in Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's speech Wednesday before the U.N. Security Council. To the contrary, the official said, Iraq has been trying since November to locate and arrest the man linked to Al Qaeda, as well as several of his associates, at the behest of Jordan.

Until now, Iraq had maintained that it was willing to make its scientists available to the U.N. team but that the scientists themselves refused to be interrogated without a representative of the Iraqi government present, for fear their testimony could be misrepresented or misused.

U.S. officials, however, have been adamant that scientists be interviewed away from their government "minders," saying the scientists could face execution if they are found to have given away secrets to the inspection teams.

Some U.S. officials have called for the scientists to be flown out of Iraq with their families to avoid potential reprisals from Iraqi authorities.

Allowing private interviews with scientists was one of two key demands from chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix in a letter to Iraq last week. Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are due in Baghdad on Saturday to try to persuade Iraqi officials to intensify their cooperation with the inspectors.

In comments in London on Thursday, ElBaradei, in charge of determining whether Iraq has abandoned its nuclear weapons program, said Iraq now must show "drastic change in terms of cooperation" in order to satisfy the demands of the international community.

A United Nations spokesman in Baghdad, Hiro Ueki, declined to give details about the interview with the scientist.

"I can confirm that we had requested a private interview at 7 p.m.," Ueki said.

The announcement of the private interview came near the end of a lengthy news conference by Saadi intended to refute statements by Powell, who laid out the U.S. case that Iraq was and continues to be in material breach of U.N. arms control resolutions.

"I am able to say that due to the circumstances now prevalent and the tensions, some scientists came back and said, 'We do not insist on witnesses.' One of them today, as we are speaking, is being interviewed," Saadi said.

Saadi, going through Powell's speech, accused him of taking quotations by U.N. weapons inspectors out of context to build the U.S. indictment. He accused the secretary of State of "piling fiction upon fiction."

As to sites shown in U.S. satellite photographs that Powell said indicated proscribed weapons activities, Saadi said that the pictures had been misinterpreted by U.S. intelligence analysts and that the sites in questions had already been shown to U.N. inspectors. He also offered to take journalists to some of the places Friday.

At the news conference, Iraqi Foreign Ministry official Saeed Mousawi gave Iraq's response to Powell's assertion that suspected terrorist chieftain Abu Musab Zarqawi, allegedly linked to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, has set up a base in northern Iraq and over the last year has forged relations with Iraqi security agencies in Baghdad.

According to Mousawi, the charge that Iraq was helping Zarqawi is "a totally baseless and dangerous allegation meant to justify large-scale aggression against Iraq."

Mousawi said Jordan alerted Iraq in November that Zarqawi had entered Iraq with a number of his associates.

Iraqi security agencies immediately began looking for them "because they posed a grave danger to national security and contradicted our own laws which forbid terrorist activities," he said.

Although no record could be found of their having crossed the Iraqi border using their own names or aliases, Iraq confirmed only a few days ago that Zarqawi is indeed in northern Iraq in an area not under Baghdad's control, he said. Jordan has been kept abreast of all of Iraq's information.

Mousawi said there had been no contacts between Iraqi authorities and Zarqawi or his group. He insisted that the mere fact that Iraq had been infiltrated by elements of Al Qaeda, especially in a region of the country the central government does not control, cannot be used to link Iraq to terrorism.

"No country can claim it is immune to infiltration by such elements," he said. "The United States in particular knows that very well."

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