A U.N. weapons inspection team left Iraq suddenly Sunday after Iraq's refusal of a compromise on two missile testing sites deepened the West's latest confrontation with Baghdad and appeared to set a course toward another round of U.S. military intervention.
The U.N. team, which had arrived just 24 hours earlier with a mandate to immobilize key equipment at the test sites, departed so abruptly after a brief visit to the Rafah and Yawm Azim missile ranges that the team's American leader, Mark Silver, dispatched a U.N. employee to fetch their luggage from a Baghdad hotel and meet them at the airport.
"We left Baghdad because the Iraqis would not allow us to seal the equipment. I was not allowed to do what I went in for, and that is why I came out immediately," said Silver, a weapons expert and veteran of eight previous inspections in Iraq.
He spoke with reporters in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.N. Special Commission charged with destroying Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Silver did not describe what his team found at the missile sites south of Baghdad, nor did he speculate on the United Nations' next move.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Friday that the United Nations would probably recommend that Iraq destroy both facilities if the team's efforts were thwarted. Failing that, Christopher said, U.S. military action "is entirely possible."
In Washington, Vice President Al Gore said Sunday that a direct attack against the Iraqi missile facilities is one of the possibilities under discussion between the United States and its allies.
"Saddam should understand very clearly that he cannot trifle with the world community where these inspections are concerned," Gore said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "The United Nations could consider a range of options, one of which could include the use of force against those facilities."
One of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's top generals said that the equipment at both sites was dismantled and removed, along with equipment at a number of other strategic facilities, several days ago in preparation for possible U.S. air strikes against them. He argued that, despite Iraq's willingness to cooperate in most areas with the U.N. weapons team, it opposes the U.N. plan to seal the missile testing facilities as "a serious precedent" that ultimately could put all of Iraq's industry under seal.
Lt. Gen. Amer Rasheed, director of the powerful Iraqi Military Industry Commission that controls the missile sites, told Cable News Network in an interview in Baghdad that the Iraqi military is fully aware that U.S. military action now is likely.
"Of course, we are very much concerned," he said, adding, "We are always ready, like any respectable nation, to defend ourselves."
Rasheed echoed earlier statements by Iraq that the United States is forcing the missile testing issue on the United Nations as a pretext for additional military action after last month's U.S. cruise missile attack on the intelligence agency headquarters in Baghdad.
"Christopher dictates to (Rolf) Ekeus what to do," he said. "Why is this so?"
Ekeus, the veteran Swedish diplomat who heads the U.N. commission assigned to destroy Iraq's nuclear, chemical and long-range weapons programs, proposed the sealing of the missile test sites as a compromise after Baghdad thwarted efforts to install surveillance cameras at the two facilities.
Ekeus and other Special Commission sources explained that long-term monitoring is warranted at both facilities, where Iraq is permitted to test missiles with a range of less than 150 kilometers but is prohibited from producing or testing longer-range missiles under the U.N. cease-fire resolutions that ended the Persian Gulf War.
In recent interviews, U.N. weapons experts and Iraqi officials agreed that such "dual-use" facilities, which have a combined civilian and military use or are capable of producing both permitted and prohibited military hardware, are the most difficult and contentious for the U.N. monitoring efforts.
Nikita Smidovich, the Russian missile expert who headed the last U.N. team in Iraq a month ago, said Iraq is again manufacturing short-range missiles that are allowed under the 1991 cease-fire accords but at factories where, with a few alterations, it could produce longer-range missiles as well.
Outlining Iraq's general strategy in an interview with The Times last month, Iraqi Information Minister Hamid Youssef Hammadi also cited the dual-use nature of Iraq's military machine.
Iraq is willing to destroy equipment that clearly violates the U.N. list of prohibited weaponry, he said, "but they (the United Nations) don't want this. They say, 'Look, you do as you are told. We do not trust you. And we are going to destroy what we like of your machinery when we decide.'
"Nobody can accept those kinds of conditions. Because in Iraqi industry, there are so many machines that could be so-called dual use. They can pinpoint, for instance, some machinery that they can visit from time to time. OK. We do not object."
There were other signals from Baghdad on Sunday that Iraq will continue its defiance in the missile test-site dispute.
The newspaper published by Hussein's eldest son, Uday, said Iraq would not shrink from another American military assault.
"The U.S.," it added in a front-page story, "is preparing the atmosphere to launch a military aggression against Iraq."