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UN Weapons Inspectors Working to Meet End of January Deadline - 2003-01-08

United Nations arms inspectors say they are increasing the pace of their work in advance of a series of important U.N. deadlines this month. Meanwhile, Iraq accused the United States and Britain of preparing what it called a devastating war, and renewed charges that the inspectors are exceeding their mandate.

U.N. experts searching for alleged weapons of mass destruction scoured at least eight sites on Wednesday. The stepped-up inspections come ahead of four important meetings this month to determine the status of Iraq's alleged weapons program.

On Thursday, chief inspector Hans Blix and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, will brief the Security Council on Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration. Later this month, on January 27, the two men will submit their first full report to the Security Council on the weapons inspection program.

Iraq denies it has any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

On Wednesday, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz lashed out at the United States and Britain for continuing with war preparations. He said despite Iraq's cooperation with U.N. inspections, Britain and the United States are moving closer to war by sending more troops to the Gulf region. He said if they are genuinely worried about weapons of mass destruction they should wait for the inspectors to finish their work and report.

Mr. Aziz also said the U.N. inspectors are going beyond their mandate - a charge first made by President Saddam Hussein earlier this week. Mr. Aziz says they are searching for information about Iraq's conventional military capabilities. He also charges the inspectors may have sought to recruit Iraqis.

But U.N. officials have denied the charges and say they have not received any official compliant about alleged espionage. They also said Iraqi officials are continuing to cooperate with the inspectors.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Jordan, Iraqi officials held talks with its Gulf War foes Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on the fate of hundreds of people who disappeared during the 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.