Iraq sought to strike a conciliatory note Tuesday in its first official response to a tough U.N. report on weapons inspections, saying that Baghdad is "ready to cooperate further."
But the Iraqi government offered no new initiatives for helping arms monitors determine whether the country has chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, and Baghdad appeared to be struggling for a coherent diplomatic response to the unexpectedly harsh review by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix.
Lt. Gen. Amir Rashid Mohammed Ubaydi, an advisor to President Saddam Hussein, insisted that Iraq has no banned weapons and has been cooperating "unconditionally" with U.N. inspectors.
"We are still, of course, ready to cooperate further," Rashid said. "We want to cover all gaps. We have done a lot. It is in our interest as a country to finish a few issues here or there, even if they are of minor importance."
The allegations by Blix, however, were not minor. In his report to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, the chief inspector said Baghdad has cooperated with inspectors in form but not substance, providing little proof that it has given up chemical and biological weapons it possessed before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Blix said that Baghdad has not fully accounted for stocks of the nerve agent VX, or for anthrax, chemical bombs and rockets, and that inspectors have found traces of thiodiglycol, a mustard gas precursor. Furthermore, Blix said Iraq has developed missiles that have a longer range than is allowed under U.N. sanctions and have been altered in a way weapons experts say could allow them to deliver nuclear warheads.
"These missiles might very well represent prima facie cases of proscribed systems," Blix said.
Rashid reiterated the government's position that it was never able to produce weapons-quality VX or powdered anthrax and, therefore, that the "shelf life" of the agents had expired, rendering them useless. Regarding the missiles, he said the government had handed over all relevant dates, diaries and information to Blix's teams and didn't know "why he raised this now."
Before the report was delivered, Iraqi officials took a considerably more belligerent stand, saying they felt they had done all they could to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and that the ball was in the court of the "evil" Bush administration.
"We have done everything possible to let this country and this region avoid the danger of war by the warmongers in Washington and their ally [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair," Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said before Blix spoke Monday.
The tone softened somewhat once Blix made the charge that Iraq appears "not to have come to a genuine acceptance" of disarmament and after he did not ask the Security Council for time to continue inspections.
Rashid complained that the U.N. report belittled Iraqi cooperation and didn't acknowledge that U.S. and British intelligence reports alleging banned weapons work at specific sites had been proved false. He said that Iraq wants to work with U.N. inspectors but that "this has to be done in cooperation. We can't be put in a position where we are a suspect and we have to prove we are not guilty."
That is, however, what the Bush administration says Iraq must do. With more than 150,000 U.S. troops and four aircraft carrier battle groups in or on their way to the Persian Gulf region, President Bush says time is running out for Iraq to prove it has disarmed or destroy any remaining banned weapons.
The message appears to be sinking in in Baghdad, where there is a growing sense of inevitability about a war. One indication of jitters has come from Hussein, who has warned army officers to watch for signs of treason.
"Treason is an unmanly act.... It does not frighten. However, in times of inattention, it may produce a treacherous act," newspapers quoted Hussein as telling a group of officers.
The Bush administration has made it known that it would welcome a coup against Hussein and offered amnesty to Iraqi officials to encourage such a move.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, meanwhile, has told Canada's CBC television that although the government wants to improve cooperation with U.N. inspectors, it is handing out hundreds of thousands of weapons to militia members and would attack American troops in neighboring Kuwait if the U.S. launched an attack from there.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, provoking the Gulf War and Baghdad's subsequent forced retreat. This time, Bush says he is seeking to disarm Iraq and to depose Hussein and has stationed tens of thousands of troops in Kuwait to that end.