Iraq's Use of Banned Arms in Doubt

Times Staff Writer

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said Tuesday that he did not believe that Iraqi officials would use chemical or biological weapons in a war and risk turning world opinion against them. France's ambassador to the United States said that if Iraq did unleash them, the French military might join U.S. forces in the region.

In an attempt to patch the deep divide in the Security Council, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte told CNN that Iraq's use of such weapons was the one thing that could change France's steadfast opposition to war.

"If the war starts and if Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons, it would change completely the situation for the French president and for the French government," Levitte said. "President Chirac will have to decide what we will do to help the American troops to confront this new situation."

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin will return to the Security Council today along with six other ministers to listen to Blix discuss plans for inspectors to finish disarming Iraq. Although the premise of the meeting may seem moot since all 134 inspectors and support staff have left Iraq, some say that plans for a peaceful disarmament are not dead yet.

"It has to be discussed, and it has to be endorsed," German Ambassador Gunther Pleuger said. "It also makes sense because the system of inspections is there, and it might be useful in the future again."

Officials from France, Russia, Germany, Syria, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea will attend. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his British counterpart, Jack Straw, are not coming.

The fourth meeting of foreign ministers at the U.N. in two months is a bit of a victory lap for the countries that stopped the U.S. from wresting a war resolution from a reluctant Security Council, diplomats say. But it is also a chance to move forward with crucial plans for a postwar Iraq.

"We have to make sure the Iraqi people don't suffer," Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram said. "This is our mission now, and we have to work together."

Blix, who will present the "key remaining tasks" for Iraq's disarmament, if only for posterity's sake, spoke wistfully of a missed opportunity to take away Iraq's arms without force.

"I thought it would be possible," he said in a session with reporters. "Otherwise I would not have taken the job."

Blix said that in the 3 1/2 months inspectors had been working in Iraq, they had not found evidence that Iraq has readied chemical and biological weapons. But even if Hussein still has them, Blix said he doubted that they would be used with the world's opinion at stake.

Blix said Iraq clearly has the capability to produce and deliver chemical and biological weapons, and although Iraq has used chemical agents in war before, it has never resorted to germ warfare.

Baghdad has benefited from widespread doubt that the inspections failed and military force is justified to disarm Iraq, Blix said, but that sentiment could change quickly.

"That skepticism would turn immediately around if they used chemical weapons or biological weapons," he said. "My guess is they would not."

When asked what Hussein had to lose at this point, Blix said, "It would be the word of the regime.

"There are some people who care about their reputation even after death."

The inspectors who were evacuated from Iraq are in Cyprus, where they will stay for about a week, Blix said. They could help U.S.-led forces verify or destroy caches of lethal weapons -- if they were asked. But so far, the United States seems to consider the inspectors' job over.

"We have had no indication from the U.S. side that they'd be interested in [inspectors] verifying what they might find," Blix said. He added that he will watch "with great interest" to see whether Iraq possesses chemical or biological weapons after inspectors failed to turn up any sign of them.

The 74-year-old Swedish diplomat said he was disappointed that the inspections process was interrupted just when he thought that his team was gaining momentum.

"I don't think it is reasonable to close the door to inspections after 3 1/2 months," Blix said.

He added that he did not believe that the Security Council envisioned such a short period for inspections when all 15 members approved the resolution in November that sent inspectors back into Iraq for the first time since 1998.

Blix dismissed reports that U.S. officials had tried to influence his reports, and he seemed to delight in their frustration with his deliberately evenhanded findings.

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