As U.N. experts prepare to conduct their first weapons inspections here in almost four years, undertaking a mission that could determine whether the United States launches a war against President Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis -- official and not -- sound just as skeptical about the process as the Bush administration.
"They've made a lot of promises," said Khalid Walid, the manager of a children's clothing store. "But we haven't seen any changes on the ground yet."
"We hope they are telling the truth," said university student Amina Kareem. "And we hope they will cooperate this time."
"We are wary," said Mohammed Muthafar al-Adhami, a member of parliament and chairman of Baghdad University's political science department. "We wish that they won't repeat the mistakes of the past."
To all three, the "they" in question is not Hussein and other Iraqi leaders, as it would be in Washington, but the U.N. inspectors.
The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, promised repeatedly during a three-day visit here that ended today that his teams will be objective, professional and polite. But Iraqis have a markedly different view of what is going on. They regard the inspectors as spies and pawns of the U.S. government who want to prolong economic sanctions on Iraq and create a pretext for a U.S. attack.
How Blix and Iraqi officials bridge that chasm -- if they choose to try -- could have a profound impact on whether the inspections are successful, potentially reducing the odds that the process will break down over the multitude of disputes that are bound to arise. "If this process is to work," one diplomat here said, "the government has to believe that he will be fair to them."
The Iraqi suspicions are a product of the more than seven years of inspections that already have occurred, starting shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and ending in 1998, when a dispute over the inspectors' ability to visit Hussein's presidential palaces and other sensitive sites led to their withdrawal by U.N. officials.
Former inspectors, as well as U.S. and U.N. officials, accused the Iraqi government of violating requirements in the Gulf War cease-fire -- backed by a Security Council resolution -- by lying about its weapons stockpiles and programs and obstructing the inspectors' work.
But Iraqi officials contend they were sufficiently cooperative. Putting the most positive spin on their side of the story, they note that they opened thousands of sites to the inspectors. They also insist they destroyed all of their chemical weapons and prohibited missiles.
The prevailing view here is that the previous inspectors were not just spies -- at least one former senior inspector has recounted sharing information with U.S. intelligence agencies -- but also cowboys with little regard for Iraqi customs or decorum. Every senior Iraqi official, it seems, has an anecdote about inspections they deemed to be excessive, from requests to see the receipts for 20-year-old photocopiers in laboratories to searches of science classrooms at Baghdad University.
"The inspectors were rude and aggressive," said Abdelrazak Hashimi, a semi-official government spokesman. "If people didn't open a building in five minutes, they called it obstruction."
Earlier this week, a newspaper run by Hussein's Baath party urged the inspectors to respect Iraq's "dignity and security" and to "act with a sense of legal and moral responsibility."
Blix sought to assuage Iraqi concerns about links between his team and foreign intelligence agencies, saying that he would be open to receiving tips from any country. He also refrained from delivering public warnings to Iraq about the need for compliance, instead emphasizing his desire to be fair and to see a lifting of the economic and other sanctions imposed after Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Diplomats and U.N. officials here differ on whether it is important for Blix to combat Iraq's perception of the inspectors. Some argue that he should just barrel ahead under terms of a Security Council resolution passed Nov. 8. It calls for inspectors to be given unfettered access to anyone and any place in Iraq, including Hussein's palaces and military installations, without having to give Iraqi officials advance warning. Any resistance could constitute a breach of the resolution and prompt the United States to attack.
But members of Blix's team said it is essential to first build trust. "We're not looking for a pretext for a war," one U.N. official said. "But it's difficult to get the Iraqis to understand that."
Al-Adhami, the parliament member, said that from what he has heard, "Blix seems better" than previous U.N. inspection chiefs. "He has not been as confrontational as his predecessors," al-Adhami said.
Unlike inspectors on earlier teams, those coming to Iraq now have received at least five weeks of training, said Brian Mullady, director of technical support and training for what is formally known as the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. The training included courses on how to identify and deal with equipment that has both civilian and military uses, he said.
Blix also has privately made it clear to Arab nations that he would be willing to hire more Arab inspectors, a demand made by the Iraqi government and the Arab League. Of more than 200 people selected as inspectors, only seven are Arabs. U.N. officials said they did not receive many nominations from Arab countries.
Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also have tried to address concerns among Iraqi officials that the inspections could drag on for years. If Iraq cooperates fully, ElBaradei said, the inspectors would be able to finish their work within a year.
Despite assurances from Blix and ElBaradei, many Iraqis remain cynical. Several people interviewed today in the middle-class Adahimya district of Baghdad said they have become resigned to another war with the United States. The only question, they said, is when it will occur.
"The arrival of the inspectors has made the war a little more distant," said Kareem, the student. "But I'm sure America still will attack us."
She said her family has kept extra flour and kerosene on hand in case of a war and has deferred purchases of nonessential items to save money for what many here expect will be post-conflict price-gouging. "The Americans will use the inspections as a pretext," said shoe salesman Mohammed Fadhil. "Maybe not right away, but as soon as they want to."