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WASHINGTON (April 22) -- The United States Tuesday balked at proposals to quickly return U.N. inspectors to Iraq, setting the stage for a new confrontation between Washington and U.N. Security Council members Russia, Germany and France.

Asked if the administration expected U.N. inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to return any time soon, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States and its war allies were doing that job.

''The coalition has taken on responsibility for the dismantling of Iraq's WMD and missile programs, which is part of the international community's shared goal...,'' Fleischer told reporters.

''We are looking forward, not backward. Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, and we will need to reassess the framework design to disarm the regime given the new facts on the ground.''

The U.S. relationship with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has been an uneasy one. In the run-up to the Iraq war, some in Washington felt Blix was playing for time to extend U.N. inspectors in order to avoid war at all costs.

Blix said on Tuesday his arms experts were not the only ones in the world but had the most credibility. He also questioned intelligence pointing to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction used by the United States and Britain to justify invading the country.

''I think it's been one of the disturbing elements that so much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky,'' Blix told the BBC.

Fleischer suggested Blix failed to carry out the task of disarmament properly by not interviewing Iraqi scientists with knowledge of the banned weapons programs as U.S. forces are now doing.

''To find the weapons you need to have Iraqis tell you where they are. That is consistent with our approach now,'' he said.

Blix was addressing the U.N. Security Council in closed session Tuesday on his readiness to field an inspection team. U.N. verification of whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction may be the key to lifting U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq as pushed by President Bush.

Russia, Germany and France, the three Security Council members who waged a bitter fight against war and confounded U.S. attempts for a U.N. resolution authorizing military force, are now pushing for a central role for the United Nations in post-war Iraq.

U.S. officials said that by complicating the U.S. effort to have economic sanctions lifted on Iraq, France, Germany and Russia could hurt their own push for a bigger U.N. role.

''It's going to depend a lot on their behavior,'' one senior official said of the three nations. ''Let's see how the French, Russians and Germans and others deal with that issue (of lifting the sanctions).''

While U.S. forces have yet to find chemical or biological weapons or evidence that Saddam was building a nuclear bomb, U.S. officials remain confident the evidence will be found but insist it will take time.

''This guy (Saddam) had years to hide things. They are experts at concealing programs and infrastructure in a dual-use capacity designed to fool inspectors,'' said one U.S. official. ''This is not an instantaneous process.''

REUTERS Rtr 12:47 04-22-03
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