U.N. inspectors at arm's length

Monitoring team can only sit, wait for entry into Iraq

January 13, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Thirty-one floors above New York's East River, Hans Blix sits atop a United Nations agency with a skilled staff, plenty of money, a clear mission - and virtually nothing to do.

Blix heads the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), created in 1999 to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and set up a system to prevent Baghdad from reacquiring them. For the past two years, he has striven to put together the most professional, best-prepared arms-inspection apparatus possible.

But Saddam Hussein, defying a warning from President Bush, refuses to allow the inspectors into Iraq. So all Blix can do is wait.

"I would have liked to be finished by now," he said last week in Washington.

UNMOVIC embodies all the contradictory impulses in the United Nations' - and the United States' - 11-year confrontation with Iraq: toughness and determination backed by military force, alternating with attempts to appease Baghdad and placate its supporters on the U.N. Security Council.

The first U.N. arms agency set up to monitor Iraq, called the Special Commission, or UNSCOM, disintegrated in 1999, eight years after it was formed in the wake of the Persian Gulf war.

Hussein expelled its inspectors in late 1998. Then the Security Council consensus supporting the inspection system crumbled. Russia, eyeing its future relations with Iraq, turned against the agency's top leadership, accusing it of cowboy antics and of working for the United States. At times, France and China joined in the criticism.

UNMOVIC was formed as part of a new U.N. approach to Baghdad. Instead of having to come completely clean on its nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs before breaking free of sanctions, Iraq can win a temporary lifting of sanctions if it "cooperates fully" with the inspections.

Unlike UNSCOM, the new agency's staff members are hired and paid by the United Nations, not lent by the major powers, to avoid the appearance of dual loyalty.

"We are getting a greater international mix, more of a normal U.N. composition. This is the world that is engaged," Blix said.

UNMOVIC's funding comes from a portion of Iraqi oil revenue under U.N. control.

The choice of leader reflects a new style. UNSCOM's last executive chairman, the blunt-spoken Australian Richard Butler, confronted Iraq repeatedly in public, making skillful use of the world's media, and his inspectors drew charges of being highhanded and insulting toward Iraqis.

Blix, 73, a former high-ranking Swedish diplomat who directed the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency for 16 years, is so soft-spoken and mild-mannered that he comes across as a kindly grandfather.

He has instructed his inspectors to be "firm, demanding, but correct. We're not there to insult or provoke," he says.

"We have to remember that inspectors are not an occupying army," he said in an interview. "We are not international police."

He says he will avoid one of the UNSCOM tactics that enraged the Iraqis - attempts to trigger Iraqi reactions that would expose ways in which Baghdad concealed its prohibited-weapons programs.

"We have not pronounced any intention to look for a mechanism of concealment," Blix said. "We'd rather go for the prohibited items than the procedures."

Apart from tactics, Blix insisted that fundamentally, UNMOVIC, working with the IAEA, has the same hardheaded purpose spelled out in U.N. resolutions after the gulf war: discovering whether Iraq continues to possess or develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and missiles that could reach neighboring countries. This is not UNSCOM-lite, he insists.

Inspectors will insist on being able to look wherever and whenever they want and demand that Iraqi authorities ensure their protection, he said.

"If we get a tip that there might be something hidden somewhere, then we'll go for it," he said. "If they do not cooperate, if they deny access, denial itself is a signal" of a refusal to cooperate, presumably because Iraq has something to hide.

Still, a cloud hangs over Blix and UNMOVIC stemming from Blix's tenure as head of the IAEA. Despite years of inspections and safeguards aimed at preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons, the agency failed to discover that Iraq was steadily trying to develop nuclear weapons.

There was at least one important clue along the way. In March 1990, Britain conducted a sting operation that uncovered an Iraqi plan to import krytrons, a triggering device for nuclear weapons.

"I asked the Iraqi ambassador, `What is this?' And he assured me that `Well, you know, these are fast switches and they are for the University of Baghdad, and if you want to, we can arrange to have the invoices here and tell you what they are for,'" Blix recalled. Asked if he had followed up, Blix said, "No, we did not follow up on that.

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