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UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix warned Thursday against jumping to the conclusion that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction just because there is a long list of outstanding questions about its weapons program.
Saddam Hussein's regime may have hidden weapons, but it also may have destroyed them, and now that the Iraqi dictator has been ousted "it should be possible to establish the truth we all want to know," he told the U.N. Security Council.
The failure of U.S.-led teams to find illegal weapons after visiting more than 230 suspected sites over the past 11 weeks has become a major issue in Washington, London and other capitals, since Saddam's possession of banned weapons was the main justification for invading Iraq.
In a short public statement to the council -- his last before he retires on June 30 -- Blix did not mention the U.S. refusal to allow his weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
He reiterated that his teams were ready to resume work, to confirm any findings since their departure just before the U.S.-led invasion began in March, and to continue monitoring Iraq's weapons programs.
Blix again stressed that the commission he heads did not find evidence of programs of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of banned material from pre-1991 or later.
"As I have noted before, this does not necessarily mean that such items could not exist," he said. "They might -- there remain long lists of items unaccounted for -- but it is not justified to jump to the conclusion that something exists just because it is unaccounted for."
Blix noted that for many years neither the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC, nor its predecessor "made significant finds of weapons," despite the large amounts of banned items that Iraq didn't account for.
"The lack of finds could be because the items were unilaterally destroyed by the Iraqi authorities or else because they were effectively concealed by them," he said.
"I trust that in the new environment in Iraq, in which there is full access and cooperation, and in which knowledgeable witnesses should no longer be inhibited to reveal what they know, it should be possible to establish the truth we all want to know," Blix said.
President Bush said last weekend that weapons had already been found. As evidence, however, he pointed to two suspected mobile biological laboratories that both the Pentagon and American weapons hunters have said do not constitute arms.
Blix said in his 40-page report that Iraq denied it had such units and provided U.N. inspectors "with pictures of legitimate vehicles." He noted, however, that none of the vehicles in the pictures looked like the trucks found by the U.S.-led teams.
In Thursday's presentation, he said that "neither the information presented to us nor pictures given to us by the Iraqi side, match the description that has recently been made available to us, as well as to the media, by the United States."
"We cannot, of course, make a proper evaluation of the depicted vehicles on the basis of published material alone," he added.
Blix stressed again that Iraq did not present items that were unaccounted for or evidence -- records, documents, or other material -- to convince the inspectors that the banned items do not exist.
The council went into closed session after Blix's presentation. The members were expected to discuss the future of U.N. inspections.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)