Presidential palace searched as inspectors have free run

INTERNATIONAL inspectors arrived at one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces yesterday and demanded and received quick entry, in an early test of new powers to hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

A key Iraqi official said, meanwhile, that the Baghdad government, in a long-awaited declaration later this week, will reaffirm its position that it no longer has such weapons.

The UN weapons monitors found spectacle and opulence inside the sprawling, riverside Al-Sajoud palace. But there was no word that they found anything else.

Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, speaking at UN headquarters in New York, said Iraq has not obstructed UN weapons inspectors during their first week of work but Baghdad must explain moving some equipment.

Iraqis said yesterday, as they have on previous days, that they co-operated with the inspectors.

General Hossam Mohammed Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer, said after yesterday's presidential search: "The inspectors were happy".

The UN team left the west Baghdad grounds after one-and-a-half hours and had no comment for reporters. The visit itself carried a message: that this time the inspectors have a free run of Iraq under a Security Council mandate requiring the Baghdad government to give up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Once the inspectors left, reporters were briefly allowed inside the palace's spectacular, eight-sided entry hall. Each of the walls was inscribed in huge gold letters with a poem praising Saddam.

In the 1990s, the Iraqis sought to bar UN monitors from Saddam's palaces. It took personal negotiations between Saddam and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reach an accommodation inspectors could visit with diplomatic escort and notice. Those teams found nothing.

A UN resolution adopted last month mandates unrestricted access at all Iraqi sites. The security staff at Al-Sajoud clearly was aware of the new powers, taking just seven minutes of radio consultation before opening the towering, ornate gates.

As usual, Saddam's whereabouts were not publicly known. He is known to move about frequently among dozens of presidential palaces across Iraq.

The inspectors thus far, in more than a dozen field missions, have reported unimpeded access and Iraqi cooperation. On Monday, however, US President George W Bush contended that so far in the inspection process, "the signs are not encouraging".

The Bush administration alleges Iraq retains chemical and biological weapons missed during the 1990s inspections and has not abandoned its nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Bush threatens to wage war on Iraq with or without UN sanction if it doesn't disarm. Other governments say that only the Security Council can authorise an attack on Iraq in a situation not involving immediate self-defence.

Yesterday, Gen Amin said an Iraqi declaration on its weapons required to be given to the United Nations by the end of the week "will include new elements, but those new elements don't mean that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction".

On Monday, among other visits, inspectors searched the Karama missile design plant in Baghdad a revisit to a site inspected in the 1990s. The UN agency reported their inspectors found that equipment which had been tagged by earlier at Karama was missing. The Iraqis said some of it had been destroyed by US bombing in 1998.

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