Iraq: Cohen fires warning shot in arms row

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William Cohen, the United States Defense Secretary, warned Iraq yesterday that it is violating United Nations Security Council resolutions by blocking UN weapons inspectors, and said economic or military steps against Baghdad might be the result.

"This is not a negotiable item," Mr Cohen said.

For the fourth time yesterday, Saddam Hussein barred American members of an international inspection team from entering the country to look for biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi leader claims the Americans are bent on spying.

Mr Cohen's statement echoed others from UN officials that the Iraqi blockade is in clear violation of the 1991 ceasefire accords that ended the Gulf War. UN officials have charged the Iraqis with taking advantage of a two- week forced halt in weapons inspections to disable surveillance cameras and hide key equipment at suspected arms sites, and Mr Cohen said that Washington agrees with those assessments.

There is sufficient time to consider "a whole panoply" of steps that might be taken in response to the Iraqi intransigence, Mr Cohen said.

Asked whether they included US military strikes, he added: "They could include further economic measures, they could include military as well." Iraqi attempts to separate Americans out of the UN inspections teams are doomed to failure, he added.

"They are not going to be able to divide the United States from the United Nations."

- AP, Washington