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U.N. weapons inspectors face daunting task in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The next stage in the Bush administration's confrontation with Iraq comes Monday, when a weapons-inspection advance team will arrive in Baghdad facing a multitude of hurdles to success.

Failure could lead to war.

The arms inspectors return to Iraq with a U.N. mandate that gives them more power than their predecessors, who left in 1998. But their job remains daunting. The Iraqis have had nearly four years to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons free from the prying eyes of inspectors. Some of their laboratories reportedly now are on the road in mobile units. Inspectors have to cover a vast country the size of California.

"There are lots of reports that they are hiding things, that there are mobile units and there are underground units," Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, said Friday at the United Nations. " . . . The Security Council wants us to try to get to them. It's not so easy."

The Iraqis aren't the only the potential headache for Blix. He faces conflicting pressures from the United States, which wants the United Nations to take a hard line against any Iraqi intransigence, and France and Russia, which suspect the United States is looking for an excuse to invade Iraq.

A prerequisite for successful inspections will be protecting them from outside interference, so as not to endanger the objectivity and credibility of the inspectors, said Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He will be heading the nuclear weapons inspectors.

In an interview Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell pledged that Washington will respect Blix's independence, even as it provides guidance on where inspectors should look.

Blix "has made it clear and we support his position that his inspections have to be seen as fair and open," Powell said. "But he also recognizes that he has to get information and intelligence, from all sources, particularly the best sources."

The advance team will chase out the pigeons and reoccupy and re-equip an abandoned inspection center in Baghdad. The first inspectors are due to arrive the following week and may begin inspections Nov. 27, Blix said. The task of verifying whether Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction could take a year or more, experts said.

But war could come sooner.

The U.N. resolution opens the way for a military response if Iraq does not cooperate.

The first test may be a Dec. 8 deadline for Iraq to deliver a "currently accurate, full and complete" declaration of its existing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The way that U.S. officials interpret the resolution, a faulty declaration alone will not trigger military action against Saddam. But if it is followed by Iraqi attempts to block the weapons inspectors, the United States will move to declare Baghdad in "material breach" of its obligations.

"It won't be just one or two discrete events that triggers a conflict," Powell said in the interview, unless a "triggering event" is so flagrant that it is clear Iraq does not intend to cooperate.

Refusing to be pinned down, the secretary of state said, "The answer is, we will know it when we see it."

However, it's unlikely that all officials in the Bush administration will agree on what they see. Civilian officials at the Pentagon and aides to Vice President Dick Cheney are eager to begin military action, while Powell and other officials want to preserve an international coalition against Iraq.

A former weapons inspector, Timothy McCarthy of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, predicted that Saddam will disclose some of his weapons programs but not all of them, presenting the international community with a tough call.

"We're headed for crisis," he said.

The U.N. resolution tries to give inspectors new powers to get around the obstacles they faced at the end of the previous inspections in 1998.

For example, it authorizes inspections anywhere, anytime, including in Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. It gives inspectors the right to interview Iraqi scientists without government monitors, and to take the scientists and their families out of the country for questioning, if necessary.

"The inspectors certainly are in a stronger position than they were in 1998," said Corey Hinderstein, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington group that opposes nuclear proliferation.

Blix said Friday that some Iraqis might not want to be questioned alone, but instead might want someone present to provide evidence of what they told inspectors. He also has questioned the practicality of taking Iraqi scientists out of the country if Iraq were to object.

During past inspections, some scientists were unable to speak freely because of the presence of Iraqi officials.

One former weapons inspector was skeptical that the new inspections would work. Richard Spertzel, who headed the biological weapons inspections from 1995 to 1998, emphasized that the inspectors are not necessarily looking for weapons, but "weapons programs."

Such programs, particularly for chemical and biological weapons, can be quite small, so they are easy to move around and hide.

His inspectors spent about three years looking for a piece of equipment called a spray dryer, which they knew from records that Iraq had imported from a western European country in 1988. They finally found it, but by the time they called in sampling experts to test for any signs of material linked to biological weapons, the Iraqis had dismantled and cleaned it.

"It's a charade that you have to go through," he said.

Only war will be able to bring about full disclosure and elimination of Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, Spertzel said.

ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency maintained that the previous inspections were successful in thwarting Iraq's nuclear weapons program, even if they could not be absolutely certain that they had found everything.

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(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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