Inspectors ready for hunt for Saddam's weapons

UN inspectors are ready to chase down any mobile bioweapons laboratories, detect underground weapons sites with radar and investigate the aluminium tubes Washington says might help Iraq build a nuclear bomb, team leaders said today.

UN inspectors are ready to chase down any mobile bioweapons laboratories, detect underground weapons sites with radar and investigate the aluminium tubes Washington says might help Iraq build a nuclear bomb, team leaders said today.

The UN experts have clear – if secret – game plans for the months of inspections ahead, they said in Baghdad today.

“We are fully conscious of the responsibility we have on our shoulders,” said Jacques Baute of the UN nuclear agency.

The UN Security Council has warned of “serious consequences” for Iraq if the Baghdad government is found in major violation of the UN disarmament demands. President George Bush has threatened military action against Iraq in that case, with or without UN sanction.

The UN teams will probably start tomorrow by revisiting an Iraqi site previously inspected in the 1990s. They will then branch out to new or rebuilt sites – for example, suspected storage places for chemical weapons US intelligence alleges are still held by Iraq.

Demetrius Perricos, of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, was asked in Baghdad whether the arms monitors will be looking for suspected truck-borne biological weapons laboratories. “We have some plans,” he said.

A recent US intelligence report said an Iraqi document indicated the Baghdad government “was interested in developing mobile fermentation units” for biological weapons.

This is “not something we find incredible,” said Perricos. He noted that inspectors have the right to stop suspect vehicles on Iraqi roads, but he would not discuss their plans further.

As for possible buried storage or production sites, “we have a strategy for underground facilities” using ground-penetrating radar, Perricos said.

Washington has raised an alarm over what it says are efforts by the Iraqi government to import a certain kind of aluminium tubes that might be usable for gas centrifuges, equipment that can “enrich” uranium to the level of bomb-grade material.

The UN nuclear agency has said it is seeking more information from the US on the tubes, which could also be used for non-nuclear purposes.

Baute said his nuclear team would look into the reported tubes deal “for us to have a clear understanding what the intention was in this area.”

British and US officials say they are sure Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction. The UN inspectors are to report to the Security Council by late January on their initial round of inspections, including whether the Iraqis have been fully co-operative.

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