LONDON - The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Thursday that, in his view, Iraq was not as yet in material breach of a U.N. resolution on disarmament, contrary to what Britain and the United States have argued.
Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on BBC Radio that Iraq had showed "modest or reasonable cooperation" in the nuclear field but urged the Iraqi regime to do more to cooperate with inspectors.
The United States and Britain have accused Iraq of spying on United Nations weapons inspectors and obstructing their work and have argued such behavior amounts to a "material breach" of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 and so to a legal green light for war.
Asked whether such non-cooperation constituted a material breach, ElBaradei said: "If they decide that this is a material breach, then that is their prerogative."
"We are not going to say that this is a material breach unless we see a gross violation of the resolution. But even then it is for the Security Council to pronounce itself on this issue."
The U.S. and Britain are stepping up diplomatic efforts to get key allies on their side ahead of a possible war on Iraq but ElBaradei said weapons inspectors still needed more time.
He said he wanted another four to five months to carry out searches for suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"I believe in the next few months, probably four or five months, we should be able to come to a conclusion that Iraq is clean from nuclear weapons," he said.
ElBaradei and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, whose teams are looking for chemical, biological and ballistic weaponry, reported to the Security Council Monday on their findings.
Blix said Iraq was not cooperating with the inspections and had failed to account for stocks of lethal weapons. They will report again on February 14.
ElBaradei said his inspectors had found no evidence of banned nuclear weapons. But he told BBC radio IAEA inspectors were still investigating aluminum tubes found in Iraq for signs that they were being readied as part of banned weapons.
He said the agency's preliminary conclusion was that they were being used for conventional arms: "We are investigating that," he said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd