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Iraq is in "gross violation" of U.N. demands to grant arms inspectors unrestricted access to sites suspected of harboring banned weapons materials, the Security Council said Friday.

The statement came one day after the chief weapons inspector told the council Iraq was still shuttling banned material around the country on trucks and railroads to avoid detection, and that Iraq had briefly blocked weapons inspectors from entering a base suspected of playing a key role in the scheme.The council repeated its demand that Iraq grant unrestricted access to weapons inspectors, but did not threaten any specific action if Iraq ignored the request.

The United Nations requires Iraq to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction before it will lift economic sanctions imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Persian Gulf War.

The Security Council statement came as chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus headed to Baghdad on Friday for three days of talks.

"The denial by Iraq, on repeated occasions, of immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to sites," and attempts to impose conditions on interviews with Iraqi officials "constitute a gross violation of its obligations," the council statement said.

On Thursday, Ekeus told the council that Iraq is loading banned material on rail cars and trucks and moving it around the country to avoid inspectors.

U.N. officials would not specify what material was being shuttled. In the past, inspectors have complained that Iraq was hiding documents on its past weapons programs, components of machines used to build arms and weapons parts.

Last week, Iraqi soldiers delayed monitors from examining a base suspected of playing a key role in the Iraqi system of shuttling contraband around the country, Ekeus said.

Monitors were allowed to enter the base Friday after a 90-minute delay. Inspectors said they were concerned the delay could have enabled the Iraqis to remove sensitive material.

After a series of standoffs earlier this year, Iraq agreed in June to grant U.N. monitors unconditional access to sites. But inspectors said Iraq quickly broke that agreement.

Iraq says the international sanctions have led to malnutrition and disease among civilians. The United Nations agreed in May to allow Iraq to sell $2 billion in oil for an initial 180-day period to buy food and medicine to alleviate the suffering. Oil is expected to begin flowing by mid-September.

U.N. resolutions demand that Iraq fully cooperate with arms monitors and dismantle its long-range missile, nuclear and biological and chemical weapons pro-grams before the Security Council can consider lifting the embargo.