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U.S. pressed to show evidence of Iraq weapons

New authority to interview scientists 'in Iraq, in private'

ElBaradei: "We'd like to get concrete evidence as to where we [should] go to inspect."

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Iraq is challenging the U.S. and Britain to prove that Iraq is hiding weapons
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BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Officials on both sides of the Iraqi inspection process say they want to see evidence of weapons of mass destruction the United States claims it has.

The information was called "really crucial" for the inspectors' success, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Monday in an interview from Sri Lanka.

"We'd like to get concrete evidence as to where we go to inspect," ElBaradei told Bill Hemmer on CNN's American Morning.

The United States "told us that they are ready now to provide us with the information they have and I think I hope that we'll get it in the next few days and weeks," the IAEA director general said.

Iraqi officials said the inspectors have already been using intelligence information from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's report released last September as well as previous CIA reports, but they did not comment on whether new U.S. intelligence reports were being utilized.

ElBaradei said the arms inspectors had new authority to interview scientists "inside Iraq, in private" with weapons knowledge.

"We are also working on the practical arrangements to take (those) people out of Iraq," he said. "We have first, however, to identify those who are willing to cooperate with us, those who have critical information that will enable us to succeed."

A baby milk factory was among the sites inspectors visited Monday. In 1991, the factory was bombed by the United States amid U.S. claims it was a dual use facility which also produced chemical weapons.

On Sunday, Iraq's top government scientist said his country would welcome "someone from American intelligence" to show U.N. weapons inspectors where President Bush believes Iraq is hiding its weapons programs.

"After 24 days of inspections covering practically all the sites named in those reports and after the submission of our declaration of December 7, the lies and baseless allegations have been uncovered," Gen. Amir Al-Saadi said.

Al-Saadi said his country was even prepared to welcome an American intelligence agent to verify that Iraq has nothing to hide.

"We even wouldn't mind if someone from the American intelligence were to accompany the inspection teams to show them the places in which they allege there is something," he said.

A senior White House official insisted that "the burden of proof remains squarely on Iraq to prove" it doesn't have weapons of mass destruction.

"They have not made a strategic choice to disarm," the official said Monday.

Al-Saadi said the United States "and Britain are the only players in this macabre game," calling claims that Iraq is hiding weapons programs "old rehashed reports," some from as far back as 1990, that Iraq has already disproved.

The general cited a statement from the U.S. Department of State accusing the Iraqis of ignoring "efforts to procure uranium from Niger" in its declaration.

"It was not uranium," he said. "It was uranium oxide -- not a weapon -- in the mid-1980s. It is in the declaration. And there has been no new procurement or attempt to procure."

Uranium oxide is a source of uranium, however, and weapons-grade uranium can be produced from it through uranium enrichment.

Al-Saadi also accused former UNSCOM chief weapons inspector Richard Butler of trying to plant evidence that Iraq was producing VX gas, a lethal chemical weapons agent.

"There was an attempt to produce in April 1990 a quantity of VX, but it was not successful," he said. "The material degraded rapidly and the production was abandoned because it was considered a waste. And that was that. There was no VX gas."

The United States also accused the Iraqis of failing to account for material that can be used to grow such biological agents as anthrax, botulinum toxin and clostridium perfringens, manufacturing fuel for missiles Iraq says it does not possess and hiding mobile biological weapons facilities.

Al-Saadi denied the claims and asked the United States and others to "let the inspectors do their work."

Meanwhile, the hunt for weapons played out against a backdrop of steadily increasing preparations for war from the United States. President Bush said Friday that the Iraqis' declaration, delivered Dec. 7, "was not encouraging" and that the United States "will fulfill the terms and conditions" of the resolution calling on Saddam Hussein to disarm.

But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov Sunday stressed Russia's opposition to any unilateral action by the United States against Iraq.

"Our common goal is to ensure that Iraq should not have weapons of mass destruction," Ivanov said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. "It must be attained on the basis of the U.N. Security Council's resolution No. 1441. All other goals go beyond the limits of our interests."

"If we are able to put the authority and information together and bring to closure (the) issue peacefully and avoid a war I think that would be the best outcome for everybody concerned," ElBaradei said.

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