Taking advantage of a halt to U.N. arms inspections, Iraqis have hidden sensitive equipment and tampered with surveillance cameras, a senior U.N. official said Wednesday.
The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Richard Butler, said his teams would try to inspect two sites today "to establish the whereabouts" of material "which has been moved."
Butler's pledge came as U.N. envoys were in Baghdad trying to persuade the government of Saddam Hussein not to interfere with the inspections, after Iraqi authorities turned back monitoring teams that included Americans for the third straight day.
Butler suspended U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq last week after Baghdad ordered the expulsion of American members of his team. Butler said the inspections would go ahead as planned Monday, but each day he has scrubbed them after American inspectors were barred from entering the country.
The inspections are meant to verify whether Iraq has destroyed all long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. That was a condition for ending the 1991 Persian Gulf war, in which a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from neighboring Kuwait.
Destruction of the arms is also the main condition for lifting crippling economic sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed on Baghdad after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
In a letter to the Security Council, Butler said there was evidence that since the inspections were called off, the Iraqis have been moving equipment that could be adapted for military use and interfering with U.N. surveillance equipment used to monitor the sites.
The cameras may have been intentionally tampered with, lenses covered and lighting turned off in the facilities under monitoring, Butler wrote.
In the letter, Butler, an Australian, noted that movement of the equipment is prohibited without U.N. permission.
The apparatus includes test equipment that could be used to calibrate prohibited missile gyroscopes, he added.
He said it would "take only a few hours" to adapt some of the sensitive equipment "to produce seed stocks of biological warfare agent."
In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin called Butler's disclosures "troubling."
"It indicates flouting of the will of the international community by Iraq and it is not a hopeful sign," he said.
As Butler prepared for today's search for the missing or moved equipment, U.N. envoys in the Iraqi capital were faced with the difficult task of persuading Hussein to rescind his order that the American inspectors leave Iraq. Six Americans work with the 40-member inspection contingent in Iraq.
The mediators met Wednesday with an Iraqi team that included Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz as well as the oil minister, foreign minister and U.N. ambassador.
The first session lasted about two hours, and the second more than five.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi said the meetings were held "in a relaxed atmosphere" and that talks would continue today.
"I would like to say that we have delivered our message," Brahimi said. "We have listened to Mr. Tariq Aziz explaining the position of Iraq on the situation."
Earlier, when asked whether he expected to defuse the crisis, Brahimi responded, "Those who are optimistic will find optimism."
The U.N. delegation plans to remain in Baghdad for two days before returning to New York to brief the Security Council on Monday. Aziz will travel to New York to argue Iraq's case before the council.
In Washington, President Clinton said he would be patient with U.N. weapons inspection efforts near Baghdad and urged U.S. allies to do the same.
"This is a frustrating policy, the one we're following, because it requires long-term patience and discipline," Clinton told reporters Wednesday at the Oval Office. "I would ask the American people and our allies around the world not to get too frustrated, to be patient but to be firm."
Other senior U.S. officials struck a tougher pose.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed there would be no negotiations with Hussein on U.N. reconnaissance flights over Iraq, which were called off Tuesday in deference to Butler. She said the overflights of the high-altitude U-2 spy plane, on loan from the United States, would resume next week.
Also in Washington, Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told a congressional hearing that while the United States was willing to give the United Nations time to work out the problem, "we are not _ I repeat not _ withholding any option of any kind."