Warning Baghdad that it's "five minutes to midnight," chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix pleaded with the Iraqi government Tuesday to produce evidence during his visit this weekend about its weapons programs.
He told a news conference that Baghdad should take seriously U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte's warning that the diplomatic window is closing and the prospect of military action is looming.
"I don't think that the end is there — that a date has been set for an armed action," Blix said. "But I think that we're moving closer and closer to it, and therefore it seems to me that the Iraqi leadership must be well aware of that."
On Tuesday, U.N. arms investigators found another empty chemical warhead as they pressed ahead with a dozen surprise inspections, on a mission in which President Saddam Hussein, in a rare interview, said he hopes they "reach the truth."
"The question is whether the other side wants to reach the truth or whether it wants to find a pretext for aggression," the Iraqi leader said in a television interview with British politician Tony Benn.
But Blix said that so far the responses he has seen from the Iraqi government have not indicated that it is prepared to provide the critical information he and nuclear inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei are hoping for during their visit to Baghdad on Saturday and Sunday.
That visit is to conclude five days before their Feb. 14 report to the Security Council, which many diplomats believe will be critical in determining whether the council supports a war against Iraq.
"I'm pleading for Iraq to enter cooperation on substance," Blix said.
"The essential point," he said, is for Iraq to assure inspectors and the Security Council "that it will actively seek and present any items or programs which are proscribed or else, if they are not there, to seek and present credible evidence for their absence."
He suggested that the commission of inquiry that Iraq set up after inspectors discovered 12 chemical warheads be given more power and be extended to search for biological weapons.
Such a commission, he said, could "really look around the country and see what is hidden by whoever, and come up with it and also come up with a viable mechanism for providing evidence that they have not given us so far."
"If they really give us hope that, yes, we'll have the same determination on the substance as they have undeniably been, largely, on the process — that would be the best thing that we would come away with," Blix said.
But he warned that time was running out, even though he and others have said they would welcome more time for inspections.
"Isn't there five minutes to midnight in your political assessment?," he asked reporters.
A reporter then asked whether that was Blix's assessment.
"Well certainly," he said. "We all know that the situation is very serious."
The chemical warhead found at the al-Taji ammunition depot, north of Baghdad, apparently was the 17th turned up since Jan. 16, when inspectors found 12 of the 122mm rocket warheads at a storage area south of the capital in their search for banned arms.
The Iraqis said those empty munitions were overlooked leftovers from the 1980s. Three days later, they said their own search uncovered four more, at al-Taji. It wasn't immediately clear whether the single one found Tuesday, which a U.N. statement said was tagged and secured, was connected with those four.
In New York, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell prepared for a pivotal U.N. Security Council session Wednesday, at which he is to present what is said to be fresh evidence from U.S. intelligence of banned Iraqi weapons.
As the global debate intensified over the future of arms inspections in Iraq, and the future of peace in the Middle East, the U.N. inspectors continued their daily unannounced rounds in their hunt for signs of prohibited chemical, biological or nuclear weapons development.
The sites inspected Tuesday included the often-visited al-Rafah missile engine test installation southwest of Baghdad, and the large Qa Qa chemicals complex, also to the south, the Information Ministry reported.
One U.N. team in white overalls and helmets went to a water purification station in Baghdad's al-Doura district, where, among other things, they checked on tanks of chlorine used for water treatment.
Chlorine can be a component of chemical weapons. Inspectors are believed interested in determining whether all chlorine produced at chemical plants for water treatment is, indeed, used for that purpose.
After some 500 inspections over more than two months, the arms controllers have yet to report finding any major violation of the U.N. ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The U.N. inspections resumed in November, after a four-year gap, to search for any weapons of mass destruction. During the 1990s, previous U.N. teams oversaw destruction of the great bulk of such weapons and their production programs in Iraq, under U.N. resolutions adopted after Iraq's defeat by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.
Blix and the other chief U.N. inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, are expected in Baghdad this weekend for talks with Iraqi officials about unresolved issues to facilitate inspections, including the disputed U.N. plan to use American U-2 reconnaissance planes to overfly Iraq in support of the U.N. mission.
Their next report on Iraqi cooperation, on Feb. 14, could help tip sentiment in the Security Council for or against long-term inspection plans.