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Former U.N. inspector to tour Iraq for film

WASHINGTON, July 28 (Reuters) -- In a trip criticized on Friday by U.S. authorities, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter is due to return to Baghdad on Saturday at the invitation of President Saddam Hussein to film weapons sites he was previously barred from probing.

Ritter, once accused by Baghdad of spying for the United States, told the Washington Post in an interview published on Friday that Saddam had agreed to give him and his crew access to weapons facilities throughout Iraq.

Ritter, who is scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on Saturday, said the aim of the documentary was to judge whether Iraq has rebuilt its arsenal since U.N. inspectors left in December 1998 ahead of a U.S.-British bombing campaign.

He hopes to interview Saddam, Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz and Oil Minister Amer Rashid for the film.

Ritter resigned from the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), then in charge of Iraqi disarmament, two years ago, accusing the United Nations and the United States of not being tough enough on Iraq when it violated Security Council resolutions.

A former Marine Corps intelligence officer, Ritter has frequently denied that UNSCOM was turned into a U.S. spying agency to topple Saddam.

Months after his resignation, Ritter, however, said Iraq no longer had a significant capability to use any weapons of mass destruction. He has said Washington and the United Nations should reassess their positions and not insist on 100 percent disarmament.

"He is going to places where he was denied access as an inspector," White House national security spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters, adding that this was no substitute for allowing real U.N. inspectors to do their job.

"We can all predict that the places he will go to will be thoroughly sanitized and the Iraqis will try to reap as much PR from this as possible," he added.

A State Department spokesman said the United States did not agree with Ritter's belief that Iraq no longer posed a threat.

"Obviously we do not agree with Mr Ritter's assertions. Our own judgment about the continuing danger of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes has been formed by years of experience with the UNSCOM inspectors, our own information and our assessment of Saddam Hussein's past behavior and future intentions," the spokesman said.

Ritter told the Post he was first invited to Baghdad last year by the Iraqi government after the publication of his book "Endgame," in which he argued that the continuation of sanctions against Iraq was more evil than doing business with Saddam.

But he has also argued in interviews that sanctions could not be lifted in a vacuum before inspectors were able to check on Iraq's compliance again.

An Iraqi-born businessman, Shakir Alkafajii, organized travel visas for the crew and put up a credit line of $400,000 to finance the documentary. He is accompanying Ritter as a "translator and cultural advisor," the Post wrote.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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