Rolf Ekeus, head of United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq from 1991-97, has accused the US and other Security Council members of manipulating the United Nations inspections teams for their own political ends.
The revelation by one of the most respected Swedish diplomats is certain to strengthen Iraq's argument against allowing UN inspectors back into the country.
Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, and Hans Blix, the UN's new chief weapons inspector, have for the past several months tried to negotiate a return of the inspectors with Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister. Nearly every member of the UN is counting on a diplomatic breakthrough to avoid a US military attack against Iraq.
Speaking to Swedish radio, Mr Ekeus said there was no doubt that countries, especially the US, attempted to increase their influence over the inspections to favour their own interests. "As time went on, some countries, especially the US, wanted to learn more about other parts of Iraq's capacity."
Mr Ekeus said the US tried to find information about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's president. He said he was able to rebuff such moves but that the pressure mounted after he left in 1997.
Most damning, he said that the US and other members of the Security Council pressed the teams to inspect sensitive areas, such as Iraq's ministry of defence when it was politically favourable for them to create a crisis situation. "They, [Security Council members] pressed the inspection leadership to carry out inspections which were controversial from the Iraqis' view, and thereby created a blockage that could be used as a justification for a direct military action," he said.
In a separate interview with Svenska Dagbladet, the Swedish newspaper, Mr Ekeus said that he had learnt after he left his position that the US had placed two of its own agents in the group of inspectors.
With the US determined to topple the Iraqi regime, officials in Baghdad argue that the return of inspectors at this time is certain to lead to intelligence gathering and to deliberate provocation on their part, thus giving legitimacy to a US attack.
Mr Sabri, Iraqi foreign minister, insists that Mr Blix has come under US pressure not to agree to any compromise with Baghdad.
Iraqi officials have been greatly frustrated - most recently at the talks with the UN in Vienna last month - by the Security Council's decision not to allow Mr Blix to discuss with Baghdad the key remaining disarmament tasks before inspectors return to the country.
Inspections based on a US agenda, says Mr Sabri, are simply impractical. "They proved a complete failure. The inspectors were procrastinating, prolonging the sanctions and providing a pretext for action against Iraq."
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