UNITED NATIONS - A panel of arms experts has advised U.N. weapons inspectors that a missile developed by Iraq exceeds range limits set by the United Nations.
The panel's conclusion will add fuel to the U.S. argument that Iraq is defying U.N. Security Council disarmament resolutions, and it is likely to deepen the discord at the United Nations over whether to go to war against Iraq or allow inspections to continue, as several key council nations insist.
In an atmosphere of tension, Germany, France and Russia surprised the United States yesterday by laying plans for an open meeting of council foreign ministers tomorrow to hear the report of the chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the council was "reaching a moment of truth' with the meeting tomorrow and confirmed that he would attend.
"Nobody wants war, but sometimes it's necessary when you need it to maintain international order." he said.
Pentagon officials asserted yesterday that Iraqi forces had moved explosives into the southern part of the country in preparation for blowing up bridges, bursting dams and igniting oil fields in a strategy to slow a U.S. attack. The officials said the tactic would impede an allied effort to provide emergency food and relief to millions of Iraqi civilians.
Military officials said they detected suspicious movements of explosives by rail and other means in recent days, and interpreted it as part of a strategy by President Saddam Hussein to create havoc in the opening moments of a war. Top U.S. commanders say their war plan includes measures to prevent or mitigate Iraqi sabotage and will not hinder their assault, but some senior officers have expressed doubts privately.
The panel of independent missile experts at the United Nations reached its conclusion on Iraq's al-Samoud missiles after meetings Monday and Tuesday in New York. The panel, including one American, was convened by Blix to provide additional technical support in analyzing the missile.
Blix has already told the council that the missiles appear to be a "prima facie' case of a violation by Iraq of the 90-mile range limit established by the Security Council. The missiles have been issued to Iraqi armed forces, he said. The panel did not reach a conclusion about a second missile, al-Fatah, but said it requires further study.
Until now, the U.S. argument for war has been based mainly on negatives, particularly its contention that Iraq has failed to cooperate with council-mandated inspections and has not provided proof that it destroyed weapons it was known to have in the past. Blix and ElBaradei have said repeatedly that they found no "smoking gun."
The conclusion about the missile violation seems certain to provoke new controversy. The inspectors learned the range of the missiles from test results provided in the 12,000-page arms declaration that Iraq delivered at the start of the inspections. The missile data was part of the relatively small amount of new information the inspectors found in the vast document.
Resolution 1441, the council measure that set up the inspections, does not spell out what should be done if the inspectors find illegal weapons. U.S. officials have argued that any prohibited weapons that emerge would be proof of Iraq's cheating, while French officials, among others, contend that the conclusion on the missiles is proof the inspections are working and should be allowed to continue.
"An exceeding of the range was declared." said Yuri V. Fedotov, a Russian disarmament specialist who attended a meeting at the United Nations yesterday with Blix. It should be taken 'precisely as an example of cooperation' by Iraq, he said.
Council envoys said Blix seemed to be moving toward demanding that Iraq turn over the missiles to inspectors for destruction, a concession many diplomats expected Hussein would be unwilling to make in the face of a possible attack.
The plans for tomorrow's report by Blix and ElBaradei were made in a closed council session led by Germany, which holds the rotating council presidency for the month. Envoys from France, Russia and China - all permanent council members with veto power - strongly supported the plan for a session open to the press and the world where their foreign ministers would be able to counter charges against Iraq and make their appeals for more time for the inspections.
The foreign ministers who confirmed their participation yesterday are Dominique de Villepin of France, Igor S. Ivanov of Russia and Tang Jiaxuan of China, as well as Joschka Fischer of Germany, which is a nonpermanent member. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also said he would attend. Powell confirmed his participation later in the day.
Until yesterday, tomorrow's meeting was scheduled to be a closed session at which the chief inspectors would present their report and council envoys would immediately discuss in private their reaction. U.S. and British diplomats warned that the new format would allow little time for closed debate, where views are expressed with more candor, and they said they feared that the tactic could be a new effort to postpone the discussion about whether to go to war.
Several nonpermanent council members, including those who support France's reluctance to go to war soon, were dismayed by the plans.
"It's a mess." one envoy said, saying he feared more posturing than substance at such a critical juncture. "We are supposed to be getting work done."