U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq are over, the nation's information minister said Monday in the clearest rejection yet of American and U.N. demands to allow inspectors to resume their work after a four-year standoff.
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told the Arabic satellite television Al- Jazeera in an interview that the Bush administration was "confused," and making inspections into an issue in an attempt to use it in the latest crisis between Washington and Baghdad.
"This is a lie," he said of Washington's insistence Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction. "Inspections have finished in Iraq."
Excerpts of the interview were aired by Al-Jazeera in a report monitored in Cairo.
Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf war, cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
The return of inspectors is a key demand of the council, and especially of the United States, which has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its weapons programs and of supporting terrorism.
President Bush, who has called for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's ouster, has threatened unspecified consequences if inspectors are not allowed to return and U.S. officials are talking openly about a new war with Iraq.
Against a backdrop of Iraq's consistent refusal to readmit international weapons inspectors, Mr. Bush told reporters Saturday: "They obviously desire weapons of mass destruction. I presume that he still views us as an enemy."
Mr. Bush, who is vacationing at his ranch in nearby Crawford, reminded reporters that he designated Iraq, Iran and North Korea in January as members of an "axis of evil."
If the U.S. goes to war, it will likely go it alone, says CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller. The estimated cost of up to $80 billion might have to be born by U.S. taxpayers and not by American allies, as in the last Persian Gulf War, reports Knoller.
Britain would not commit forces to a conflict with Iraq unless Prime Minister Tony Blair was convinced it was the best available option, one of his closest political allies was quoted as saying in press reports Monday.
With public opposition becoming increasingly vocal, former Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson also said Blair would not act without the support of political and public opinion, The Times reported.
"While the prime minister will not want to weaken in any sense on the stance he has taken, naturally he will not commit Britain to engaging in military action unless and until it is clear that that is the best option available and political and public opinion has been prepared to support it," Mandelson was quoted as telling The Times.
Mandelson, a former trade secretary, also criticized what he called "mixed messages" from Washington, an apparent reference to the perception that the U.S. Defense Department is more hawkish than the State Department.
"They therefore cannot be surprised that Europe and the world is reacting in a confused way when the message we are getting from the administration is not clear," Mandelson was quoted as saying.