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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Blix Orders Baghdad to Destroy Missiles

U.N. weapons inspector could trigger military action if he declares Iraq in 'material breach.'

February 22, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix ordered Iraq on Friday to start destroying dozens of Al-Samoud 2 missiles, engines and component parts by next Saturday. If Iraq refuses to comply, Blix is prepared to declare it in "material breach" of Security Council requirements -- which could trigger military action.

Such a verdict from Blix, regarded as a neutral arbiter of Iraq's cooperation, could unite the Security Council, which is deeply divided over whether Iraq has failed to cooperate with the U.N. as well as over the advisability and timing of any use of force to disarm the country. Security Council Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq a "final chance" to disarm, says that if inspectors determine there has been a further material breach, Iraq will face serious consequences -- namely, military action.

U.N. diplomats were skeptical that Iraq would destroy the weapons on the eve of a possible U.S.-led invasion.

"I should think that a few weeks away from war, they wouldn't want to blow them up," said a senior U.N. official.

Blix has met with four of the five permanent members of the Security Council this week. But some members, notably Russia, contend that the missile infraction alone is not enough to justify war and that inspectors are coming under great pressure to provide a pretext for an attack.

Ironically, it was the Iraqis who alerted the inspectors to the missiles. In its Dec. 7 arms declaration, Iraq noted that in some tests, the Al-Samoud 2 missiles exceeded a U.N.-mandated 93-mile range limit.

Inspectors subsequently visited the missile test sites and witnessed a series of test firings. In 13 of 40 tests, the missiles exceeded the limit by 20 miles or so. Iraq has argued that when the missiles are equipped with a full payload and computer guidance system, they are heavier and usually fall within the accepted range.

Acknowledging the political sensitivity of the missile issue, Blix convened a panel of international experts to run hundreds of computer simulations with data provided by Iraq. Their unanimous conclusion, which Blix reported to the Security Council on Feb. 14, was that the missiles violated U.N. regulations.

Along with the missiles, 380 illegally imported missile engines and missile casting chambers must be destroyed, Blix said in an official letter.

Blix handed the letter to Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Douri in his office at U.N. headquarters during an hourlong meeting and distributed it later to the Security Council's 15 members.

Douri reiterated Friday that Iraq wants U.N. technical experts to come to Iraq to see that the missiles cannot exceed the limit, and not base such a crucial judgment on "a written paper, a theoretical report."

In another move that might increase pressure on Iraq, Blix also plans to outline more than 35 unresolved issues on Iraqi disarmament to his advisory board on Monday. Several Security Council members, as well as the influential Canadian ambassador, Paul Heinbecker, proposed that Iraq should be given a deadline to provide answers about unaccounted-for weapons materials.

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