UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States took possession yesterday of the Security Council’s copy of Saddam Hussein’s massive arms declaration, as inspectors began combing the dossier for clues about whether Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Reversing an earlier decision, the U.N. Security Council agreed late Sunday to give the United States and the four other permanent council members – Britain, France, Russia and China – full copies of the 12,000-page declaration.

Deputy Russian Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said the United States had taken the council’s lone copy to Washington where it would make duplicates for distribution to the four other powerful council members.

The 10 non-permanent members, including Syria, will only see a censored version of the document once weapons inspectors have gone through the report and gleaned it of sensitive material – including possible instructions on bomb-making.

Angered by the decision cut over the weekend by Secretary of State Colin Powell, diplomats said, Syria planned to protest the arrangement during Security Council consultations yesterday.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it would take some time to review the declaration and he called on Washington and others to be patient with the inspectors.

“The inspectors will have to review them, analyze them and report to the council, and I think that’s going to take a while.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer withheld judgment on the massive documentation and said the United States wants to study the material “thoroughly, completely and fully and thoughtfully.”

The U.N. nuclear agency said yesterday that at first glance, the nuclear section of the dossier repeats Saddam’s claim that his country has no atomic weapons, materials or associated programs.

Of the 2,400-page nuclear portion of the document, 300 pages still must be translated from Arabic. And only an exhaustive analysis, backed up by ongoing arms inspections in Iraq, can determine if the document is truthful, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The cross-checking is extremely important, including cross-checking on the ground,” Fleming told The Associated Press. “Should there be elements we feel have to be checked out, we have the advantage of having a team on the ground that can go the next day.”

On Sunday, an adviser to Saddam suggested that in the years before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq may have been close to building an atomic bomb.

Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi said Iraq no longer has such ambitions, but that it was up to the U.N. nuclear agency to determine “how close we were.”

Using a powerful electronic database, nuclear experts began poring through the dossier within hours after it arrived at U.N. offices Sunday, measuring Iraq’s claims against the hundreds of thousands of documents the agency has compiled since it began inspections in Iraq in the early 1990s.

Iraq insists in the declaration that it has no programs for developing banned biological or chemical weapons – and challenged the United States to hand over any evidence it has to the contrary.

“The sooner they do it, the better,” al-Saadi said Sunday.

Annan also said yesterday that sharing some intelligence with inspectors was critical to their success.

In Iraq, U.N. arms inspectors made a return visit yesterday to Iraq’s huge al-Tuwaitha nuclear complex, where scientists in the 1980s worked to produce the fissionable material for nuclear bombs.

Chief nuclear arms monitor Mohamed ElBaradei said that war can be avoided if continued inspections prove Iraq is disarmed.

“If we succeed in providing a thorough analysis on the report and if we succeed in making sure Iraq is disarmed through an inspection, that I think could lead to the avoidance of a use of force,” ElBaradei said at a Tokyo conference on nuclear safeguards.

The bulk of the Iraqi document, covering chemical, biological and missile components, is being reviewed in New York by the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC.

The declaration arrived at U.N. offices in New York and Vienna late Sunday, the deadline for Iraq to provide a full and complete accounting of its weapons programs.

But the real test will be the document’s transparency, which could determine whether Iraq will face another war with the United States and its allies over U.S. insistence that Iraq has banned weapons.

Under the terms of Security Council Resolution 1441, passed on Nov. 8, false statements or omissions in the declaration, coupled with a failure by Iraq to comply with inspections, “shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations.”

Such a breach could be enough for Washington to argue that military action is the only way to force Iraq to comply.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said Iraq’s declaration created “not a bad basis” for resolving the Iraq crisis politically.

Under successive resolutions, passed since the Gulf War ousted Saddam’s troops from neighboring Kuwait, the Security Council has demanded that Iraq disarm and comply with a weapons inspections regime. Only after inspectors declare Iraq in compliance can 12 years of crippling sanctions, imposed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, be suspended.

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