Iraq Pledges More Cooperation

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq promised UN weapons experts more help on Monday, saying it was even forming its own teams of inspectors to search for banned weapons.

After two days of showdown talks with chief UN arms inspectors, held as U.S. and British leaders warned Iraq was on course for war, Baghdad's officials were eager to appear conciliatory.

President Saddam Hussein's top adviser, Amir al-Saadi, read a joint statement at a news conference in Baghdad with visiting inspection chiefs Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.

It said Iraq had handed more documents to inspectors, was clarifying others and was forming its own teams to search for suspicious items. UN inspectors discovered empty chemical warheads last week that Iraq had failed to report to the United Nations; Iraq said it had forgotten about them.

The statement said Iraq would also encourage inspections of "private sites" -- an apparent reference to places like the homes of leading scientists -- and to "private interviews" -- referring to talks between UN inspectors and Iraqi technical experts without the presence of Iraqi government minders.

A cautious Blix said he was "fairly confident" Iraq would honor its pledges. "We have solved a number of practical issues, not all," he told the news conference. "On the substantive issues relating to anthrax, VX [nerve agent] and a number of Scud missiles, we have not discussed that. That is to be discussed some time in the future."

There was no mention in the statement of taking scientists outside Iraq for interviews, as Washington has demanded on the grounds that the interviewees need protection from reprisals.

The statement said Iraq would supplement a list of around 500 scientists involved in its past banned weapons programs.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides said later Monday that the weapons inspectors had asked to use Cyprus as a possible base for interviews with Iraqi scientists outside the country if needed. Asked if Cyprus had been formally approached to host such interviews, he said: "Yes. We were officially contacted by the UN last week on such a possibility."

Blix was due to head to Athens to brief the European Union on the outcome of the visit to Baghdad.

Washington on Sunday issued one of its clearest warnings yet to Hussein that noncooperation with UN inspectors could be deemed a trigger for a war in the absence of a "smoking gun," or hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction -- and that a decision could be just weeks away.

"I think [the Iraqis] have said that there are still certain areas they are ready to provide more information. I think that in other areas they said they are ready to reconsider their position," ElBaradei said in an interview Sunday.

Teams of UN experts working in Iraq searched at least 10 suspect sites across Iraq on Monday.

To avoid war, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday he would favor Hussein and senior Iraqi leaders immunity from possible war crimes prosecution if it would clear the way for their exile, The Associated Press reported.

Continuing Moscow's campaign for patience with Baghdad, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the international community had not yet exhausted all possible political and diplomatic means to settle the crisis around Iraq, Interfax reported Monday. Ivanov was scheduled to meet Monday with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the AP reported.