Members of the United Nations inspection team currently in Iraq, whose activities have provoked the latest stand-off between Saddam Hussein and the United States, have been seeking evidence that Iraq may have used prisoners as human guinea pigs in a quest to develop biological weapons.
Richard Butler, the head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), confirmed in New York that one of his teams entered the Abu Ghraib prison on Monday in search of documents relating to the possible tests. No such documentation was found, however.
The revelation further pumped up the stakes in the latest crisis over Iraq, triggered earlier this week when Baghdad objected to the composition of one of the UN teams headed by the former US Marine Corps officer, Scott Ritter. A third attempt to carry out inspections was blocked yesterday.
Diplomats speculated that the mere hint that Iraq may have exposed prisoners to lethal substances could also help tip the balance in Washington towards taking military action against Iraq unilaterally. So far, no evidence of such tests has been found, sources emphasised, and the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, yesterday denied it had taken place.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council condemned Iraq for blocking Mr Ritter and his team and reiterated its demand "that Iraq co-operate fully and immediately and without conditions or restrictions with the Special Commission".
The declaration was issued despite earlier havering from Russia, and to some extent France, that had infuriated diplomats from other countries. Iraq claims the inspection teams are weighed down with members from Britain and the US.
Sir John Weston, the British Ambassador, said: "The references to the use of people for the purpose of experimentation with biological weapons are extremely disturbing. They are just one among a number of the different elements that the special commission is anxious to get to the bottom of".
UN officials think tests may have been carried out in 1994 and 1995, but have no cause to believe they are continuing.
A senior western diplomat suggested that Iraq may have deliberately resurrected arguments about the nationalities of inspectors because of the sudden interest by the teams in the biological testing issue. "This may be an attempt to throw sand in their faces just as we were getting close to something," he said.Reuse content