CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President Bush on Thursday cast doubt on efforts by U.N. arms inspectors to obtain sensitive information from Iraqi scientists, citing the presence of Iraqi minders as a reason for skepticism.
A U.S. official said any interference by Iraq with the interview process would be another sign Saddam Hussein was failing to meet U.N. disarmament demands.
"The inspectors are there to verify whether or not he is disarming. You hear these reports about Iraqi scientists being interviewed, but there's a minder in the room," Bush told reporters during a tour of his Texas ranch.
He had been asked whether he was satisfied with the U.N. inspectors' attempts to interview Iraqi scientists. Bush's response included a broad criticism of Saddam and a warning that a reckoning was near.
"He is a man who likes to play games and charades. The question is, will Saddam Hussein disarm?" Bush said. "The first indication isn't very positive that he will voluntarily disarm."
Bush cited Iraq's arms capabilities declaration, which he called "false," as well as the scientist interviews.
"He's got to understand, his day of reckoning is coming," Bush said of Saddam.
Bush spoke as more than 11,000 American troops prepared to head for the Gulf amid U.S. preparations for a possible invasion of Iraq to force an end to any programs Saddam has to make nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
"I'm hopeful we won't have to go to war," he said on Thursday, while reiterating his vow to lead an international coalition against Saddam if needed.
"Hopefully he realizes we're serious, and hopefully he disarms peacefully," Bush said.
U.N. inspectors have interviewed two Iraqi scientists since last week as part of the team's mission to determine the status of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs. In both cases, the scientists have asked that a minder be present.
The United States wants the U.N. to take the scientists and their families out of Iraq for the interviews, to minimize fear of retribution.
VIOLATES TERMS OF U.N. RESOLUTION
Iraq rejects U.S. accusations that it possesses weapons of mass destruction, and a top Iraqi adviser has accused the United States of using promises of residence permits and money to entice Iraqi scientists to give false information.
A U.S. official said the presence of an Iraqi minder directly violated terms of the disarmament resolution adopted by the United Nations in November. He said there were reports the Iraqi government was pressuring its scientists to request minders.
"Insisting that minders be in the room is another example that they're not serious about complying," the official said. "They (the Iraqis) are not allowed to place conditions on the interviews."
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, accused Washington of planning to invade his country regardless of what U.N. arms inspectors turn up, as part of a plan to control the region's oil supplies.
U.S. officials have argued that Saddam could go after U.S. interests or supply weapons to extremist groups like al Qaeda, which the United States accuses of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Defense officials said the order to send desert-trained troops to the Gulf was the first deployment of a full combat division to the area since the 1991 Gulf War.
They and other troops on notice to move would double the nearly 60,000 U.S. personnel already in the region in the event that Bush carries out his threat to attack Iraq.