An American-led team of U.N. arms inspectors left Baghdad today with a pledge to return, easing a standoff with Iraqi officials who had refused to let the weapons experts work.
U.N. officials said the team had planned to leave Iraq today anyway and insisted the departure was not a surrender to Iraqi pressure.
"We will be back," said Scott Ritter, the U.S. inspector Iraq has accused of espionage. "This inspection team had important arms control tasks assigned to it and these are still valid."
Ritter and 15 other team members left the Iraqi capital by road for an air base at Habiniyya, 40 miles west of Baghdad. They were to fly to Bahrain and then to New York.
Iraq began barring Ritter's team from carrying out inspections on Tuesday. Iraqi officials said the team included too many U.S. and British inspectors. Other U.N. teams have continued their tasks.
Charles Duelfer, deputy chief of the inspection program, also said that sticking with the original departure date even though inspectors were unable to carry out their tasks was not buckling to pressure.
"We had thought about keeping him there if we were making progress with the Iraqis, but we weren't," Duelfer told The Associated Press in New York late Thursday. "Other people on the team had other obligations, so logistically it would have been difficult to keep them there much longer."
Ritter had arrived in Iraq on Sunday. At the time, U.N. officials, who rarely comment on inspectors' schedules, did not specify a departure date.
Meanwhile, U.N. weapons inspections chief Richard Butler left New York on Thursday for Baghdad to demand full access to all sites.
He was to stop in Paris for talks with French officials, who have offered additional French inspectors.
President Clinton said he expected solid support in the United Nations regarding Iraq and praised a Security Council statement this week that deplored the blocking of the U.S.-led team.
"Now, we have to see what happens," he said Thursday.
Defense Secretary Willian Cohen said today that it was premature to discuss using military force against Iraq.
"The position of the United States is we always would seek to build a coalition," Cohen said in Bangkok, Thailand, during a stop on an Asian tour. "But the United States is also, if necessary and in compelling circumstances, willing to act alone."
Cohen said Clinton had not yet decided whether he would act alone in the latest Iraq conflict.
Britain announced today that it was sending an aircraft carrier and a smaller warship to the Gulf in response to Iraq's blocking of the weapons inspectors.
"Saddam's track record clearly demonstrates that he only shows respect for diplomacy when it is backed by military strength and readiness," Defense Secretary George Robertson said in a statement to the House of Commons.
The United Sates already has a heightened military presence in the Gulf, left over from the last U.N.-Iraq confrontation over American inspectors, late last year.
The inspectors are in Iraq to check its compliance with Security Council orders to eliminate its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, under conditions set at the end of the Gulf War.
The United Nations reports progress in eliminating the nuclear and chemical programs but suspect Iraq is holding back considerable information on biological weaponry.
U.N. officials said Thursday that Ritter and his team had been pursuing leads raised in a 1995 raid. Then, U.N. sources said on condition of anonymity, experts found videotape of beagles and other dogs writhing in pain as chemical and biological agents were sprayed on them.
The videotapes were among a wealth of evidence U.N. teams found in August 1995 in a search of a chicken ranch owned by a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein. The cache supplied much of what the United Nations knows about the status of banned chemical and biological weapons programs in Iraq.
But U.N. spokesmen said the pictures provided no conclusive proof that Iraq had conducted chemical and biological weapons tests on humans. Iraq has in the past acknowledged testing chemical and biological tests on animals before the United Nations ordered those weapons destroyed in 1991.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard refused to release the videotapes.
Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, said a photograph was found at the same time showing a human arm covered with lesions. But he said it was unclear where or when the picture was taken.
Eckhard said the picture was inconclusive on the question of suspected experimentation on humans.
Both Iraqi U.N. ambassador Nizar Hamdoon and Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, have denied any human experiments.