Iraqi official calls U.S. charges 'baseless'
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- Iraq's deputy prime minister flatly denied Sunday that his nation has weapons of mass destruction or that it is developing nuclear arms.
"Everybody in the world should know that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Tariq Aziz told CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer."
The official also said his country has no ties to the terrorist network al Qaeda, which has members in northern Iraq.
"They aren't in a part of Iraq that is under our control," Aziz said of the Kurdish region. "I've made it clear tens of times, hundreds of times, that our political system, our political ideology is against the ideology and the practices of the Taliban and the al Qaeda group."
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have accused Iraq of amassing biological and chemical weapons and of trying to acquire nuclear arms. They have cited those threats in their call for a regime change in Iraq.
Bush has said no decision has been made about whether to attack the country, but Cheney called for pre-emptive action in two speeches last week to veterans groups.
"What Mr. Cheney is saying is baseless," Aziz said. "He hasn't provided any solid evidence to back his allegations."
Aziz extended his invitation to U.S. representatives to determine for themselves whether the country has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
"We ask the American Congress to send a fact-finding mission equipped with whatever equipment they can get from the American government," Aziz said.
"They can bring with them experts in all the areas of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons," said Aziz, who was in Johannesburg attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey dismissed Aziz's invitation, saying members of Congress would not be as good as weapons inspectors.
"Apparently, he'd rather have amateurs rather than professionals," the Texas Republican said. "We need to have trained inspectors in there."
Bush and the United Nations turned down an invitation from Iraq this summer to talk about sending inspectors to the country, branded by Bush as part of an "axis of evil."
U.N. arms inspectors, complaining that Iraq was uncooperative, left the country in December 1998 on the eve of a U.S.-British bombing raid.
Aziz: Return of inspectors a 'non-starter'
Aziz said Sunday it would be pointless for weapons inspectors to return.
"It's a non-starter because it's not going to bring about a conclusion" to the controversy," he said, singling out Hans Blix, the U.N. team's chief weapons inspector.
"We do not trust that Mr. Blix and his group are going to bring a conclusion within a reasonable time so that the United States and everybody in the world should know that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he said.
The U.N. arms inspectors were in Iraq for more than seven years. Without their certification that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations won't lift economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"If they just come and spy on Iraq and drag their feet for years without bringing about a conclusion, with the sanctions, the harsh sanctions in place, do you think that this is a reasonable, acceptable situation? It is not," Aziz said.
The solution, he added, "is to have an honest, objective investigation into the American allegations. And we would like to reach a conclusion so that the Security Council, according to its law, would lift the sanctions on Iraq."
This year, Iraq has met three times with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan but failed to arrange for the return of weapons inspectors. The United States and the United Nations argued the inspectors must have unfettered access to be effective.
Aziz said that his country's neighbors don't share the U.S. preoccupation with whether Iraq has amassed weapons of mass destruction.
"None of those governments in the region has complained to the United States or to the international community about Iraq being a threat to them," Aziz said. "On the contrary, they have good relations with Iraq."
If the United States attacks Iraq, its real goal will be to bolster Israel, he said. "Everybody in this region is saying that the American plans to attack Iraq are just to serve the Israeli purposes -- to weaken the Arab world around Israel and leave Israel the strongest entity in the region."
During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles at targets in Israel. Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear capability, did not retaliate under pressure from the United States, which agreed to supply the Patriot missile system to the Jewish state for its defense.
Aziz said Sunday that Iraq no longer has any Scud missiles.
"They were all destroyed, and they were all accounted for by the U.N. inspectors," he said.
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