WASHINGTON - The two chief United Nations weapons inspectors said yesterday that they had not achieved a breakthrough in meetings in Baghdad and that their visit failed to produce the swift movement toward Iraqi disarmament demanded by the United States to slow the momentum toward war.
But Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei both declared that Iraq was "beginning" to cooperate more seriously in disclosing information about its suspected programs for weapons of mass destruction.
Their mixed report suggested that the Bush administration will continue finding it hard to convince the U.N. Security Council that further inspections would be useless and that the council should authorize force to disarm Iraq.
The chief inspectors' two days of meetings had been billed as an attempt to bring about a change in Iraq's attitude and produce "active" cooperation.
They are due to make a formal report to the Security Council on Friday, after which the United States is expected to press for a new resolution declaring that Iraq has failed to disarm and providing fresh authorization for a war to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The White House issued no formal reaction. But a spokesman said the administration's position was unchanged from earlier in the day, when President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, argued in a television interview that Iraq was "playing a game" in trying to "meter out a little bit of cooperation."
At a news conference in Baghdad that was broadcast in the United States, Blix said: "I perceived a beginning [of a] more serious attitude of cooperation on substance, and I welcome that."
Blix, who is head of the U.N. agency that monitors Iraq's biological, chemical and missile programs, stopped short of describing the new signs of cooperation as a breakthrough. But the statements by the two U.N. inspectors will bolster the case among some Security Council members for a diplomatic solution.
"Breakthrough is a strong word for what we are seeing," Blix said. But he added: "I would much rather see inspections than some other solution," referring to the possibility of war.
ElBaradei, who monitors Iraq's nuclear programs, said, "I'm seeing the beginning of a change of heart on the part of Iraq."
The two men are to deliver formal reports Friday to the Security Council, most members of which place greater faith in their assessments than in the Bush administration's argument that Iraq still refuses to disarm and is deceiving the inspectors.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said later yesterday that the White House needed to review Blix's comments before giving a full response. But Fleischer said, "Given the fact that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein is not disarming, time is running out."
Despite their cautiously positive statements, neither of the chief U.N. inspectors said Iraq had disclosed important new evidence about its alleged weapons programs. Blix said Iraq had turned over new documents about anthrax, missile development and the nerve agent VX, though he did not reveal their contents. Blix also said Iraq had pledged to expand its search for evidence of its weapons programs and for new documents.
Blix also backed away from suspicions about Iraq moving chemical warheads that he raised in a report to the Security Council on Jan. 27. The administration has pointed to those comments to buttress its claims that Iraq is moving weapons and equipment to foil inspections.
Yesterday, Blix said the base where 12 warheads had been found "was not new," suggesting that the warheads might have been overlooked during inspections in the 1990s.
But Blix said Iraq still failed to agree to surveillance by U-2 spy planes. The aircraft might be able to detect whether Iraqis were moving suspicious material away from sites before inspectors arrived.
In addition to meetings over the weekend with Amer al Saadi, Hussein's science adviser, the two U.N. inspectors met yesterday with Iraq's vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan. They did not meet with Hussein.
Asked by a reporter about Bush's warning to Hussein last week that the "game is over," Blix replied, "Well, we are still in the game."
Before Blix spoke, Bush, Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell all expressed deep skepticism about Iraqi cooperation, and said it was time for the Security Council to face up to Iraqi defiance. Bush has warned that if Iraq fails to disarm and the council then fails to act, the United States would lead a military coalition to invade Iraq without new U.N. authorization.
Saying the United Nations faces a "moment of truth," Bush told congressional Republicans meeting in West Virginia: "It is clear that not only is Saddam Hussein deceiving, it is clear he's not disarming. And so you'll see us over the next short period of time working with friends and allies and the United Nations to bring that body along."
'Do this every time'
Rice and Powell delivered the same message on talk shows yesterday. Interviewed on CNN, Rice asserted that the U.N. resolution adopted unanimously in November does not allow Iraq "to sit there and meter out a little bit of cooperation here, a little bit of cooperation there, in order to deceive the world and to make the world think that they are trying to cooperate."
"The Iraqis are playing a game here," she said. "They do this every time they see a little bit of pressure."
The Security Council, she said, "needs to worry about its credibility."
In another interview, on CBS' Face the Nation, Rice said "it's very hard to imagine" that inspections would succeed. Asked what the United States would do if Hussein were to go into exile, Rice declined to rule out the possibility that U.S. forces might still enter Iraq to ensure stability and put the nation on a path toward democracy.
Powell and Rice reacted dismissively to a reported French-German initiative to greatly expand the number of inspectors operating in Iraq and to intensify surveillance.
Both called the plan a diversion.
If Iraq truly cooperated, "You could do it with half as many inspectors," Powell said.
As he spoke, however, three veto-wielding members of the Security Council - France, Russia and China - gave no indication that their opposition to a war with Iraq had lessened.
"We are convinced that efforts for a peaceful resolution of the situation regarding Iraq should be persistently continued," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said at a news conference after talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany.