Arms inspectors return to Iraqi 'hot zone'

International arms inspectors revisited one of the “hot zones” of Iraq’s biological weapons programme today, peering into holding tanks and checking the ground and outbuildings to see whether military research had resumed.

International arms inspectors revisited one of the “hot zones” of Iraq’s biological weapons programme today, peering into holding tanks and checking the ground and outbuildings to see whether military research had resumed.

The al-Dawrah plant, ostensibly used for making animal vaccines, produced deadly botulinum toxins in the 1980s, earlier UN inspections found.

British intelligence has said it was also suspected of developing anthrax.

The UN experts again had no immediate comment on what they found on the second day of renewed inspections to determine whether Baghdad remains committed to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Iraq maintains it no longer has programmes for weapons of mass destruction.

The outcome of these inspections could help determine whether the UN Security Council eventually authorises military action to disarm Iraq.

The US administration of President George Bush might attack Iraq with or without United Nations’ authority.

At least six biological inspectors, whose destination was to be kept confidential, had sped to a town on Baghdad’s southern outskirts in a convoy of UN vehicles pursued by dozens of international journalists.

The press could observe some of the visit from beyond the barbed-wire-topped fence of the Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Production Laboratory.

“We are growing cucumber and eggplant,” workers in a garden corner of the compound said.

In the 1990s, under pressure from UN inspectors, Iraq acknowledged it had produced tons of biological agents for weapons here, especially botulinum, which kills by paralysis and suffocation.

After arriving, the inspectors gained immediate entry – the Iraqis say many likely sites have been alerted – and quickly began walking the grounds.

They knew where to go because the site had been surveyed in the 1990s by UN inspectors who destroyed tons of chemical and biological weapons and dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme.

Steel doors were opened in small, concrete-block outbuildings for today’s inspection. The clipboard-bearing specialists appeared to check off items as they looked over tanks, pipes and other fixtures.

One jeans-clad expert climbed to the top of a 20ft high tank, peered in over the top, and nodded to a colleague as if to confirm previous information.

The UN team then vanished from sight, possibly to confer over files and internal laboratories.

A recent UN intelligence report said Iraq announced last year it would renovate the al-Dawrah plant for animal vaccines. The inspectors presumably were seeking documentation to support that.

A second team of UN inspectors went to the al-Nasr complex, 30 miles north of Baghdad, today. The site is owned by the Ministry of Industry.

In the past, al-Nasr produced “special munitions,” particularly aerial bombs that were believed to hold chemical agents. The complex also used to extend the range of Scud missiles imported from the former Soviet Union.

The inspections resumed yesterday with surprise visits to a missile-engine site, an adjacent graphite factory whose products might be used in missile development, and to a motor factory that apparently could be used for nuclear purposes.

At the missile site, the inspectors wanted to view a new test “stand” that some analysts believe could be used to test engines for missiles of a range beyond the UN-permitted 90 miles.

Earlier UN inspections of Iraq were suspended in 1998 amid disputes over access to Iraqi sites and Iraqi complaints that America was using the UN operation for espionage.

In the new round, the inspectors are to report to the Security Council by late January on what they have found and Iraqi co-operation.

If the inspectors eventually certify that Iraq has cooperated fully with their disarmament work, UN resolutions call for the lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.

If the Iraqis fail to cooperate, the council may debate military action against the Baghdad government

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