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Iraq WMD search stepped up

The WMD search in Iraq has proved fruitless so far.
The WMD search in Iraq has proved fruitless so far.

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(CNN) -- The search for Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction is being stepped up as international pressure mounts for the coalition to produce evidence that would support its decision to wage war on Iraq.

A task force of more than 1,300 experts has been formed in an expansion of efforts to find proof that Iraq had a program of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

The Iraq Survey Group comprises experts from the United States, Britain and Australia.

Between 250 and 300 of those team members -- including some inspectors who were in Iraq before U.N. teams were expelled in 1998 -- will visit suspected weapons sites, said U.S. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, who will lead the team.

Dayton estimated that slightly fewer than 200 U.S. personnel have so far checked about a third of Iraq's suspected weapons sites.

Dayton said his team would be better prepared to respond quickly to intelligence reports and would no longer simply check off a list of suspect sites.

"The Iraq Survey Group represents a significant expansion in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction," he said, adding that it would be "a deliberate process and a long-term effort."

Russia -- which opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq -- on Friday urged the coalition to give an early account of the WMD search.

"We expect our U.S. and British colleagues to present this information in the nearest future," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russia's U.N. ambassador Sergei Lavrov as saying.

Lavrov said a briefing by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to the Security Council on Thursday would offer a good opportunity for the United States and Britain to present their latest findings.

"After all, we are working for a common cause, and it is absolutely clear that to draw a line under the Iraq problem one must take into account both what the coalition is doing there and assessments by (U.N. monitors)," he said.

U.S. President George W. Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Sunday as part of a trip aimed at mending ties with European countries that opposed the Iraq war. (Full story)

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said Saturday the purpose of the expanded search team was to get the full picture of the WMD situation in Iraq.

Speaking at an Asian Security Conference in Singapore, Hill said the search was already yielding evidence but "whether these so-called smoking guns as such can be found, I don't know."

"I've no doubt at all that the picture at the end of this process will be of somebody who believed in weapons of mass destruction as a strategic tool ... and was clearly prepared to use them," Hill said.

IAEA to return next week

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency plans to send a team to Iraq for the first time since the end of the war to conduct a safety inspection at an Iraqi nuclear facility that might have been looted, an agency spokesman said Friday.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky cautioned: "These are not weapons inspections.

"We are planning to send a team to Iraq tentatively next Wednesday, June 4, with the purpose of verifying nuclear material held at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center," Gwozdecky said.

"This work flows from Iraq's obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," he added.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN on Friday: "We don't know what to expect. We have seen a lot of reports about looting. We are going to focus on nuclear materials that would [be] under verification. The coalition, however, says that they will take care of the safety and the security of radioactive sources.

"I would, again, continue to say that we are ready to help in case our help is needed."

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