U.N. Team Set to Resume Arms Inspections
By Howard Schneider
Nearly 90 members of the arms inspection team returned to Iraq today by plane and bus, arriving at their compound outside Baghdad at about 1:30 p.m. with a truckload of duffel bags and equipment. They promptly unsealed doors they had secured when they left and began setting up computers and other gear that had been disassembled for a departure that could have been permanent.
"We are back; we are ready to work immediately," Jaakko Ylitalo, the senior U.N. inspector here, said as he and the rest of the group deplaned from a military transport at Habaniya Airport, 60 miles from Baghdad. A group of about 150 U.N. humanitarian workers have also returned to the Iraqi capital over the last two days following their evacuation to Amman, Jordan.
The crisis over stalled weapons inspections led U.S. and British forces to threaten a campaign of airstrikes that was narrowly averted Saturday when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agreed to resume cooperation with the U.N. disarmament team in its mission to dismantle Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction.
With President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying they will not wait long to act if the inspectors are stymied again, U.N. officials say they will try to resume where they left off in August. That was when Iraq abruptly halted new inspections in the midst of a meeting with Richard Butler, head of the U.N. commission established to oversee Iraq's disarmament. The monitoring of previously inspected sites continued for nearly three months, but the Iraqis stopped that as well on Oct. 31, setting world opinion firmly against them.
On returning to Iraq, the inspectors will begin checking and adjusting video cameras, air samplers and other monitoring equipment at roughly 40 Iraqi facilities with the potential to produce weapons. In perhaps a week or so, teams of experts from other countries will arrive to begin new site inspections that could provide a key measure of whether Iraq will live up to its pledge last weekend to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to cooperate with the disarmament regime.
"This is certainly an opportunity to get on with the business we are here to do," said Caroline Cross, a spokeswoman for the Baghdad Verification and Monitoring Center, the field office established by the United Nations to ensure Iraq fulfills the disarmament promises it made at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"Full and unfettered access means going where we want to go and seeing what we want to see," Cross said. "I'm sure we will want to go to the sites we've been denied access to all along."
Over the last seven years, Iraq has taken an erratic approach to its disarmament obligations, at times cooperating to destroy hundreds of warheads, at other times trying to conceal equipment, material and evidence from inspectors. The result is a list of issues on which Iraq has provided some information, but not enough for inspectors to certify that some weapons, or the capacity to produce them, have been destroyed.
In a report last month, for example, the U.N. weapons team reported that Iraq still had not been able to explain what happened to 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas that it says were lost after the Gulf War. A dozen of the shells were found at a storage facility in 1997 and earlier this year.
Weapons inspectors are also trying to determine what happened to tons of a biological growth agent purchased by Iraq, possibly to cultivate weapons material, and to sort out discrepancies in information that Iraq has volunteered.
Last July, for instance, according to the latest U.N. weapons report, a senior Iraqi official amended the country's three-year-old claim that it had produced five missile warheads filled with anthrax and 16 filled with botulinum -- both deadly biological agents -- saying instead that the country had 16 anthrax warheads and five with botulinum. "Iraq did not present any supporting documents or other specific evidence to substantiate the new statement," the report noted.
The situation has created an environment of aggravated mistrust over the substance of the inspections and cultural friction between members of the weapons team and their Iraqi counterparts. Iraq, for example, has been upset over surprise inspections staged on Friday, the Islamic day of prayer, while U.N. weapons officials say such work is necessary so that the Iraqi military does not feel it has a secure day on which to move evidence around.
This is the environment in which Butler -- who has often been accused by Baghdad of working for the United States -- will have to determine whether Iraq is cooperating or not.
U.N. officials said his judgment on that issue will be submitted to the Security Council. If Iraq does not cooperate, the United States and Britain have pledged a quick military response; if it does, the United Nations will begin a comprehensive review of the country's progress on disarmament that could lead to a lifting of international trade sanctions imposed on it during the Gulf War, at least in theory.
Since the war, Iraq has been allowed to sell only limited amounts of oil -- its chief commodity -- to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. "Many members of the Security Council want the question of Iraq's cooperation with the inspectors to be tested and proved," said Prakash Shah, Annan's special envoy to Iraq. "If Iraq cooperates fully and unreservedly with the inspections due to begin in the next few days, the comprehensive review to be conducted by the council offers a hopeful sign for the future."
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