WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 — The Bush administration has stepped up pressure on Hans Blix and the United Nations weapons inspection team to identify key Iraqi weapons scientists and spirit them out of Iraq so they can be offered asylum in exchange for disclosing where Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction, according to administration and United Nations officials.
High-level negotiations on the issue became visible when Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, met with Mr. Blix in New York on Monday and pressed the issue of interviewing Iraqi scientists. The administration is offering to set up a witness protection program for defecting Iraqi scientists, thus enabling a more aggressive approach.
A United States official at the United Nations said that the talks on how to handle Iraqi scientists were continuing and that the initial message to Mr. Blix, a chief arms inspector, was that Washington wanted him to "make it a priority" to use the full powers conveyed by the Security Council resolution passed on Nov. 8.
The resolution demands that Iraq provide "unimpeded" and "unrestricted" access "to all officials and other persons" that inspectors decide they want to interview "inside or outside Iraq."
The purpose of this inspection tool, perhaps the most aggressive tactic in a decade of Iraq inspections, is to achieve a breakthrough in gathering fresh evidence about Iraq's weapons program at a time when Baghdad is under mounting criticism from senior American officials for previously concealing its weapons programs and lying about them.
Private tips and defectors have contributed to most of the American intelligence gathered on Iraq's secret nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, United States officials said.
It is not clear what intelligence the administration is using as a basis for its deductions or how much of this information has been shared with the United Nations.
The push by Washington for defectors has further pressurized the atmosphere surrounding the first week of inspections as Iraq prepares to make what the Security Council has said must be a full disclosure of its secret arms programs.
A senior administration official tonight said that "the United States is concerned with the safety, welfare and nonintimidation of people who may wish to cooperate" with inspectors. "We take this issue seriously," the official continued, "and we hope the international community would also attach the same importance to the issue."
The reliance on the United States to take over from the United Nations the handling of Iraqi defectors is a very delicate issue, senior administration officials said.
The United Nations is keen to protect its mission from activities that might compromise it, and the handling, debriefing and resettlement of defectors is traditionally a function of intelligence agencies.
Senior Iraqi officials have begun to assail the inspection mission as a tool of American intelligence and war preparation. On Wednesday, Iraq's vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, referring to the inspectors, said that "their work is to spy to serve the C.I.A. and Mossad," the Israeli intelligence agency.
According to the arrangements under discussion in Washington and New York, United Nations inspectors could identify Iraqi scientists who are believed to have crucial knowledge of weapons programs. They would be flown out of the country, perhaps with their families.
American officials would then debrief the Iraqis, feed any useful information back to the United Nations teams and then help resettle the Iraqi scientists in a country willing to take them. Those who wanted to return to Iraq could, but American and United Nations officials said the risks of return would be high for any Iraqi taken outside the country.
American official say Iraqi intelligence agencies routinely kill any Iraqi suspected of cooperating with foreign countries.
An intense argument is under way, however, on almost all of the details of a protection program. Some American officials want the United Nations team to be aggressive in identifying scientists and demanding that they leave the country, perhaps without the scientists' permission. Mr. Blix is said to be arguing that the United Nations cannot, in effect, abduct people against their will. His view is being backed by most of the United Nations hierarchy and the State Department in Washington, officials said.
But there were strong contrary views in the Pentagon and White House, officials said.
"I don't see how they can do their mission," Richard Perle said of the inspectors, "if they cannot interview" scientists and other officials associated with secret programs. Mr. Perle is chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory body to the Pentagon. He said the Security Council provision demanding access to Iraqi weapons scientists and their families "was the only innovation in the entire resolution, and if they don't use it, they will fail."
Similar strong views have been expressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"If you go back and look at the history of inspections in Iraq," Mr. Rumsfeld said on Tuesday, "the reality is that things have been found — not by discovery, but through defectors."
United Nations officials, uneasy with soliciting or demanding defections, have been searching for a means to conduct private interviews with Iraqi scientists inside the country. American officials have asserted that this is out of the question since the inspection teams are under intense surveillance by Iraqi intelligence. The officials said they were aware of a large number of scientists who have knowledge of Iraqi weapons programs. Some would like to see Mr. Blix submit a list of names to the Iraqi government and demand to interview those individuals.
Still, Mr. Blix is said to be resisting any idea that the United Nations can force Iraqi scientists to take the life-threatening step of leaving Iraq for interrogation.
"That's where the problem is," said an administration official sympathetic to the concerns Mr. Blix and other United Nations officials have expressed. "Taking someone against their will is contrary to the whole United Nations concept. You'd fracture the U.N. consensus."
The Security Council resolution authorizes the inspectors "to facilitate the travel of those interviewed" and their family members outside of Iraq. This provision was intended to protect the inspectors from retribution, but even this protection has raised questions.
"Let's say for argument's sake that you are a senior government official," a United Nations expert said. "It is one thing for you to say that it is part of your job to agree to go out of the country to be interviewed, but why would you pull your wife out of her job and the kids out of school? If you wanted to assure Saddam that you had no plans to defect, you would leave them there to reassure him."
Advocates of an aggressive approach argue that the inspectors could order scientists to report with their families, giving them no choice so Mr. Hussein could not blame them. Once out of the country, the scientists could make their own choices. But United Nations officials ask how many family members count in a country built on clans where extended families can run to the dozens or hundreds?
"We are conscious that this is potentially a key issue," a United Nations official said. "But many of us think that defections are best done by a welcoming government. There is no U.N. mechanism for this. The U.N. has no capacity to grant asylum. Any government, and the United States in particular, has all of that capacity."
Mr. Bush's national security advisers were scheduled to meet today to further discuss the questions of how to handle Iraqi scientists.www.nytimes.com/2002/12/06/international/middleeast/06INSP.htmlE-mail this article