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US Claims Exclusive Right to Search for Illegal Weapons in Iraq

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix says his staff should return to Iraq to independently verify the discovery of any weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration says there is no immediate role for the inspectors because coalition troops are in charge of searching for illegal weapons.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it is the U.S.-led coalition that has taken on the job of searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

With Saddam Hussein driven from power, Mr. Fleischer said it is time to reassess the framework previously used to search for those weapons, saying President George W. Bush is "looking forward, not back."

Mr. Fleischer said the administration believes there is a role for the United Nations in a post-war Iraq, but not, it appears, in searching for weapons of mass destruction.

Destroying those weapons was one of the biggest reasons President Bush gave for invading Iraq last month. U.S. troops are now searching for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but have not announced any confirmed finds.

U.N. inspectors had been in Iraq before the war. U.N. members met with Mr. Blix Tuesday to consider sending them back.

Russia said it wants U.N. inspectors to finish their work and certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction before lifting economic sanctions imposed following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Russia opposed the war and has criticized Washington's justification of eliminating suspected weapons of mass destruction

President Bush wants sanctions lifted quickly to make it easier to sell Iraqi oil and buy foreign goods to help rebuild the country.

Mr. Fleischer said sanctions were a way of dealing with a government that no longer exists. Now, he says the embargo can only hurt the Iraqi people.

In an interview with the BBC Tuesday, Mr. Blix said before the war, U.S. and British officials appear to have used what he called "shaky" intelligence to prove that Iraq had banned weapons. Mr. Fleischer said the Bush administration told U.N. inspectors that the best way to find illegal weapons was to interview Iraqi scientists outside the country so they would not be intimidated by Saddam. With that government gone, Mr. Fleischer said the U.S. approach to finding those weapons is consistent with that advice, as he said coalition teams are working with Iraqi scientists to uncover illegal weapons sites.