WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, concerned that a "smoking gun" may never be found in Iraq, is urgently assembling an argument that Baghdad's withholding of weapons information, and its refusal to make scientists freely available, should persuade U.S. allies to back the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Administration officials said that what some called Iraq's "pattern of non-cooperation" with the United Nations' demand to disarm would be presented to the United Nations Security Council soon after Jan. 27, the date by which Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, is to make his next report on Iraq.
The date for what one administration aide called the "moment of truth" is now more likely to be early or mid-February, officials said, rather than late February or even March.
"At some point, we have to be honest with ourselves and ask whether Iraq is cooperating," said an administration official. "That will be the question to be discussed after we get the Blix report on Jan. 27."
Until now, officials say, access to Iraqi scientists has been impeded by the presence of "minders" from the government, and they predict that in the next two weeks the effort to interview the experts alone will be accelerated.
The officials said that in spite of the wish by Blix and his colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to continue the inspection process, the United States would move quickly to force an early conclusion by the Security Council.
Calls for access Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has noted that although Blix and his team say they would like more time, they also say they will do what the Security Council wants.
Powell and others have begun increasing their emphasis on the need to interview scientists without interference as a major cause for accusing Hussein of rejecting the disarmament demands in Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted last fall by a unanimous council vote under American urging.
An official said the team of inspectors working in Iraq had recently focused on a list of 25 scientists whom they want to interview in or outside Iraq. Any obstruction by Iraq is likely to be considered a major cause for action.
The U.N. inspectors had heard a report that a relative of one scientist on the list had been killed under suspicious circumstances, but this could not be confirmed, an official said.
Some administration officials say that they have lost control of the public relations aspects of the inspection process, creating a popular perception that it is the job of the inspectors working alone to find direct evidence of Iraq's nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs. But in the view of the administration, the U.N. teams were never likely to find anything without the cooperation of Iraqi authorities.
'Speculations' In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. arms monitors have inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies as major "facilities of concern," and reported no signs of revived weapons building, an Associated Press analysis of intelligence shows.
Blix's deputy, Demetrius Perricos, told reporters Wednesday that some intelligence tips received have been useful, but "some of them are speculations."
Many of the suspicions raised in headline-making U.S.-British reports were based on satellite imagery of Iraqi installations, remote photos taken during the inspectors' four-year absence from Iraq. Now that more than 100 U.N. specialists can again "see under the roofs," as Perricos put it, the alarms look less warranted.
The CIA raised alarm in October about the al-Mutasim missile factory south of Baghdad, where the Iraqis are building their Ababil-100 short-range missile under a U.N. edict prohibiting such weapons with ranges longer than 90 miles.
But after five unannounced visits to al-Mutasim in the past month, however, the U.N. missile experts have reported no clear evidence of such intentions.
But one such piece of evidence was found last week, when the inspectors discovered 11 empty chemical warheads at an ammunition storage depot in southern Iraq. Aides to Bush immediately labeled them as evidence that Iraq had failed to disclose all it was obliged to in its report of its inventory late last year.
But there are many in the administration who lament that the discovery of the empty warheads presented a misleading model of what the inspectors are trying to do. One official made the analogy to the Securities and Exchange Commission trying to audit a company's financial records, only to find that the company refused to hand them over. "The question is whether Iraq is cooperating," one official said. "That's the question that we have to ask ourselves."