UNITED NATIONS — Iraq agreed "in principle" Thursday to destroy its proscribed Al-Samoud 2 missiles, but it asked to meet with a U.N. team before proceeding, implying that it might not meet a Saturday deadline imposed by chief inspector Hans Blix.
In a short acceptance letter to Blix, Iraqi presidential advisor Gen. Amir Saadi complained that the destruction order was "unjust" and that its timing was aimed "to justify an aggression against Iraq." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld immediately dismissed the offer, calling it a typical example of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's tendency to offer meaningless concessions at the last minute.
The destruction of the missiles has become a crucial test case of Iraq's compliance with U.N. demands that it disarm. If Iraq misses the Saturday deadline to begin the process, Blix could make an emergency report to the Security Council that could lead them to find Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution mandating Baghdad's disarmament. That finding could trigger military action.
Iraq has yet to provide "full-fledged cooperation" with U.N. inspectors, Blix said this week. In a draft of the 17-page written report Blix will submit to the Security Council today, he concludes that "Iraq could have made greater efforts" in proving it has no weapons of mass destruction and that disarmament results are "very limited" so far.
Blix will meet with the council Thursday or next Friday to answer its questions.
The Blix assessment and Baghdad's offer on the missiles came as the Pentagon reported that an Iraqi Republican Guard division had started to pull out of the northern part of Iraq and was moving south, perhaps toward Baghdad, signaling that Hussein may be taking up defensive positions for a possible U.S. invasion.
Rumsfeld declined to comment on the Iraqi troop movements, except to say that the Pentagon views such shifts with interest. But a U.S. defense intelligence official said Iraq's movements were not a surprise. "It's been speculated he is going to reposition his forces around Baghdad" in an attempt to draw the United States into bloody urban warfare, the official said.
In the letter to Blix, Hussein advisor Saadi asked to meet with a U.N. team to establish a timetable and technical and procedural criteria for destruction of the missiles. Blix's deputy, Dimitri Perricos, arrived in Baghdad on Thursday to oversee the demolition of the missiles, their engines and all components.
Even if Iraq does destroy the dozens of Al-Samoud missiles, the Bush administration is downplaying such a move as too little, too late, and portraying the cache as "the tip of the iceberg."
"They refuse to cooperate, don't cooperate, drag it out, wait until someone finally nails them with a little piece of the whole puzzle," Rumsfeld said.
The U.N. inspection team in the country found that Iraq had altered the Al-Samoud in violation of U.N. restrictions in a way that would allow the missile to go beyond its mandated 93-mile limit. The U.N. imposed the limit in 1991 as part of the Persian Gulf War cease-fire agreement to ensure that Iraq had no missiles that could reach Kuwait City.
In 13 of 40 test-firings witnessed by inspectors, the missiles exceeded the range limit, if only by 20 miles or so. Iraq maintains that the missiles would not travel beyond the limit when weighed down with fuel, a full payload and a guidance system.
But the inspectors are not just concerned about those 20 miles. The missile's alterations suggest that Iraq may have been trying to develop a longer-range missile that could hit Israel or deep inside Iran, missile experts say.
Inspectors found that Iraq had expanded the diameter of the missiles to 760 millimeters -- violating the U.N. limit of 600 millimeters. The larger barrel could accommodate two side-by-side engines and double or triple the missile's range, said a U.N. official.
Independent analysis by former U.N. inspector and missile expert Timothy McCarthy, now at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, showed that the Al-Samoud 2 could also be used as a second-stage missile to be launched from a Scud-type weapon. Iraq had pursued such a design before the Gulf War, and it could be used to deliver chemical or biological agents.
The diameter itself is very significant," McCarthy said. "It's the same as a Styx -- a Chinese anti-ship missile -- and has a radar seeker that can be changed into an altitude fuse which is required for dispersing chemical and biological weapons."