A second known snag for UN weapons inspectors occurs as they are delayed getting into a military guest house north of Baghdad
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Thursday Iraq was not "so far" in material breach of a U.N. disarmament resolution and that any military action should preferably be backed by a second resolution.
But he told BBC Radio that if the Security Council blocked a second U.N. resolution on military action against Iraq, a strike could take place without the U.N.'s support.
"What we would hope is that if there was the clearest evidence of a further material breach, the Security Council would accept its responsibilities and say the will of the international community had to be enforced by all necessary means -- which means military action," Straw said.
"But if that was blocked, and I know we've been around the houses on this, then we obviously have to reserve the right for what we call the Kosovo option."
He was referring to military action without a U.N. resolution, as in the case of the Yugoslav province of Kosovo in 1999.
"But our absolute clear preference is that if in that sad eventuality we believe that military action is the only way of enforcing the international order, then that should be done by a second Security Council resolution," Straw said.
Britain has been the staunchest ally of the United States in its bid to rid Saddam of any weapons of mass destruction he may be harboring and British officials this week began to ready troops and contract cargo ships for a possible military strike.
U.S. officials have said that Washington would initially seek U.N. backing for any military action but that the United States reserves the right to use force without a U.N. resolution.
Iraq weapons dossier has gaps
At the United Nations, chief weapons inspector was giving his first assessment of Iraq's arms declaration on Thursday, which both the United States and Britain have already said is full of holes.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix was expected to tell the U.N. Security Council that Iraq has left questions unanswered in its 12,000-page weapons declaration.
But he was unlikely to go as far as saying Iraq is in violation of a U.N. resolution on disarmament, as the United States appeared set to do once Blix had spoken.
U.S. President George W. Bush has threatened to disarm Iraq by force if it does not come clean on whether it has weapons of mass destruction or is trying to acquire them.
But it remains unclear whether Washington will declare Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution -- language that could ultimately lead to war.
U.S. officials also insisted on Wednesday that any violation would not be an immediate case for war.
"This has never been a case of planes revving their engines and the bombing starts tomorrow. That's not what this is about. This is about Iraq respecting the resolution, about Iraq disarming," said an official who requested anonymity.
The U.N. resolution adopted last month gave Baghdad one last chance to disarm or face "serious consequences."
It required Iraq to declare all its nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic weapons programs and related materials.
Baghdad has repeatedly denies it has any banned weapons.
Blix was giving his assessment of the Iraqi dossier with Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Diplomats said Blix, who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), would report that Iraq had left the same gaps in its declaration on chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles as it did in 1998.
Inspectors kept out of military guest house
A second known snag for U.N. weapons inspectors occurred on Thursday, when they were delayed getting into a military guest house north of Baghdad. Reporters at the scene estimated the inspectors were prevented from entering the site for 15 or 20 minutes, long enough to the arms experts to get concerned and begin making calls on cell phones, apparently reporting the delay to supervisors.
On an Associated Press Television News videotape, a guard is overheard telling inspectors, "Out of cooperation, we are asking you for inspection permission as this site hasn't been visited before" - which should not be an issue under the latest U.N. resolution, which promises the arms experts unimpeded access to any site.
The standoff took place at a military industrial facility at Al Fao, one of four locations the Iraqi Information Ministry reported the inspectors visited on Thursday.
A year ago, an Iraqi engineer who said he defected after having been arrested inside the country reported working for the Iraqi government's Military Industrialization Organization and an affiliated company, Al Fao.
In an interview with The New York Times, conducted in December 2001 in Bangkok, Thailand, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri said he visited at least 20 sites he believed were associated with Iraq's chemical or biological programs and that he had done repair or construction work in nuclear weapons facilities.
Al-Haideri claimed Iraq used companies to purchase equipment with United Nations blessing, then secretly used the equipment to further its program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Thursday's delay followed an incident last Friday in which the U.N. experts were unable to visit locked rooms at one inspection site because employees, who were off work for the Muslim day of prayers, had taken the keys home with them.
After Blix's presentation, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was delivering the administration's reaction in Washington.
But even if Washington does declare Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution, its allies would consider such a pronouncement meaningless at this time.
The resolution says a "material breach" requires other serious violations, such as failure to comply with weapons inspections, in addition to any lies or gaps in the declaration.
U.S. and British officials say Iraq has not accounted for chemical and biological agents the previous weapons inspectors asked about when they left in 1998.
These include 550 mustard-gas shells, 150 aerial bombs that could be filled with chemical or biological agents, 200 tons of complex growth media that could be used to nourish biological weapons and 200 tons of chemicals for the nerve agent VX.
In other developments
-- Syria said on Thursday it had instructed its representatives at the United Nations in New York to boycott Security Council talks on Iraq's arms declaration in protest against receiving an excised copy of the text. "The Foreign Ministry asked its permanent delegation in New York not to participate in the Security Council discussion regarding the Iraqi declaration on weapons of mass destruction after Syria returned yesterday the abridged copy," the official SANA news agency said.
-- A United Nations Security Council vote to revamp a list of civilian goods Iraq can import is likely to be delayed by a week or two because of resistance from other Council members to changes proposed by the United States, diplomats said. The 300-page "goods review list," negotiated at length in May, is part of the oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell unlimited quantities of oil, with revenues going into a U.N. account that pays vendors for goods that Iraq orders. Washington had pushed for agreement by today on additions to a restricted roster of civilian goods going to Iraq that Council members have to review to determine if they have military uses.
-- Iraq said on Thursday it will hold talks with its Gulf War foes Kuwait and Saudi Arabia next month on the fate of hundreds of people who went missing during 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. "According to a minute signed here today with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have agreed to meet in Amman on January 8 to discuss missing Iraqis and Kuwaitis," an Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
London/UN/Baghdad - Reuters and AP