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For those still clinging to hopes of avoiding a military showdown between the U.S. and Iraq, yesterday was not a good day.

U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq discovered empty chemical warheads in “excellent condition.” U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix issued a stern warning to Baghdad to cooperate “or else.” And those believed to be behind the ricin attacks in the United Kingdom were linked to both al-Qaida and another terrorist group based in Iraq.

A team from the U.N. inspections commission found “11 empty 122 millimeter chemical warheads and one warhead that requires further evaluation,” spokesman Hiro Ueki said in a statement released to the press.

The inspectors were examining a large group of bunkers at the Ukhaider Ammunition Storage Area, about 90 miles southwest of Baghdad, reported CNN. Reuters said Ueki did not evaluate the significance of the find. He noted that a team had gone there to inspect bunkers constructed in the late 1990s.

“The warheads were in excellent condition and were similar to ones imported by Iraq during the late 1980s,” said the inspector’s statement. “The team used portable X-Ray equipment to conduct preliminary analysis of one of the warheads and collected samples for chemical testing.”

An Iraqi official said the weapons were old artillery rockets mentioned in its December declaration.

Though a U.S. official said the find did not represent a “smoking gun” that would precipitate war, the unexpected discovery represents one more nail in the coffin of a diplomatic effort to disarm Iraq that has lasted 11 years.

Predictably, Iraq called the find a “storm in a teacup.” Iraq denied the warheads were part of any banned secret arms program.

Reacting to the news today, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the discovery “troubling and serious.”

“Chemical warheads were not, not on the … list of weapons Iraq issued,” The Associated Press quotes Fleischer as saying. “The fact that Iraq is in possession of undeclared chemical warheads … is troubling and serious.”

The United States is massing forces ready to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if ordered. Blix is preparing to brief the U.N. Security Council on the progress of his search Jan. 27.

Fleischer said President Bush has not made a decision about whether to go to war but called Jan. 27 “an important date.”

“Beyond that events will dictate timetables,” he added.

Blix said he is “almost sure” diplomats will request another report in February. But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Blix told him the time for inspections was “not very long.”

Speaking in Brussels, Blix accused Baghdad of illegally importing arms-related material to the country, but added it was not yet clear whether the items were related to weapons of mass destruction.

White House officials said they were pleased to hear Blix’s remarks, noting that they are more consistent with what Washington has been saying – only the pressure and threat of military force will get Iraq’s attention.

Blix said: “Everyone wants to see a credible and verified disarmament of Iraq. We feel Iraq must do more than it has so far in order to make inspections a credible avenue (to disarmament). The other major avenue is in the form of armed action against Iraq. For my part we are trying our best to make inspections effective so we can have a peaceful solution.”

He added: “It’s clear Iraq has violated the bans of the United Nations in terms of imports. We have found things that have been illegally imported, even in 2001 and 2002.”

The Bush administration is resisting calls by other nations that it secure the explicit blessing of the United Nations Security Council before going to war with Iraq. The White House further suggested that it could decide in favor of military action even if weapons inspectors do not turn up concrete new evidence against Saddam Hussein.

To top off the day’s developments, the deadly poison ricin discovered at a makeshift lab in a north London apartment last week is linked to a group of Algerian extremists with ties to al-Qaida and Iraq, according to news reports.

The Guardian newspaper reports British intelligence has come to regard the North African terrorists as the “greatest al-Qaida-related threat in Europe, the most potent threat after al-Qaida itself.”

The AP reports a senior U.S. official traveling in Europe said men arrested in the alleged ricin plot were linked to Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group in northern Iraq that is suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and possibly to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Four men were arrested in the Wood Green apartment raid Jan. 5 and charged with attempting to develop a chemical weapon. BBC identifies the men as Samir Feddag, 26, his brother Mouloud Feddag, 18, Mustapha Taleb, 33, and a 17-year-old youth, who could not be named for legal reasons.

On Tuesday, police in the northern city of Manchester arrested two North African men during another raid of a home where a 23-year-old Algerian asylum seeker was residing.

During the raid, one of the suspects fatally stabbed an officer. The two were taken into custody under the British Terrorism Act 2000, and a full-scale forensic search of their property was launched.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Scotland Yard describes the two arrested as “significant suspects” in the ricin probe.

Manchester police arrested a fourth man overnight Wednesday night.

British intelligence were reportedly on the trail of the Algerian network weeks before the discovery of the ricin.

According to the Guardian, the Algerian terror networks were born out of the Armed Islamic Group that directed attacks in the 1990s at the Algerian government and France, which supported Algiers. In the late 1990s, the militants became influenced by al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

Some attended al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan which evidence suggests included familiarization with ricin and other toxins.

From the al-Qaida training camps, some of these Algerian militants went on to fight in Chechnya, expanding their jihad against the U.S. and its allies.

The Guardian reports the ricin inquiry has become the largest single investigation undertaken by Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch since Sept. 11.

The AP reports ricin, which is derived from the castor bean plant, is among the world’s deadliest toxins and has been linked in the past to al-Qaida and Iraq.

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