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Team Needs Time, U.N. Inspector Says

Iraq: Any new searches would focus on weapons caches, Hans Blix says, but preparations could take up to five months.

September 14, 2002|BOB DROGIN and MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UNITED NATIONS — The chief weapons inspector for the United Nations said Friday that he would focus first on finding suspected stocks of anthrax and ballistic missiles in Iraq if his teams are allowed to return. However, he warned that it would take four or five months of preparations before inspections could begin.

In an interview a day after President Bush urged world leaders here to immediately confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime over its suspected weapons of mass destruction, Hans Blix also said he hopes to avoid the armed standoffs and bitter disputes that marked the last round of U.N. inspections in Iraq.

"It's in their interest and in our interest not to have clashes," said Blix, executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, in an office decorated with a satellite photograph of downtown Baghdad.

Blix, a Swedish disarmament expert who was the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and oversaw inspections of Iraq's weapons programs, warned that it's unrealistic to expect a new weapons inspection regime to provide a quick resolution to the Iraqi weapons dispute. He said it may take a year to conclude whether Iraq is adequately disarmed.

"If they want thorough and complete inspections, it's not compatible with something hasty," he said.

Although Security Council members said Friday that they were unanimous in backing a speedy return of weapons inspectors to Iraq as the first step, they have not yet set a time frame for their own actions or Iraq's response.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters here that any new U.N. resolution on Iraq must include a deadline, but he did not elaborate. He said U.S. diplomats would begin drafting language for a new resolution on Iraq next week.

"It has to be different this time," said a senior State Department official, referring to the aborted inspections of the 1990s. "That's the million-dollar question. How different can it be?"

A senior European diplomat who supports sending inspectors back to Iraq said Hussein may "surprise everyone" by allowing inspectors to return.

"What he really wants is to stay in power," he said. "He beat them all once. Maybe he thinks he can do it again."

Iraq has resisted U.N. pressure since 1991 to stop work aimed at building nuclear weapons and to destroy all chemical and biological weapons, including stockpiles of anthrax.

Iraq admitted producing more than 2,200 gallons of liquid anthrax in the 1990s, but U.N. inspectors at the time estimated that the regime may have produced three times as much. U.N. teams also were unable to account for all the equipment used in anthrax production facilities.

U.S. intelligence believes that Iraq has resumed production of chemical and biological weapons, possibly including anthrax, since the last inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq in 1998. Baghdad later barred their return.

The previous U.N. inspection teams also concluded that Iraq may have hidden a small force of Al-Hussein missiles after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in violation of its cease-fire commitments. The missiles have a 400-mile range and thus could threaten Israel as well as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Blix said he would initially seek to resolve between five and 25 of the nearly 100 "disarmament disputes" left from 1998 if Iraq accepts the U.N. teams.

U.N. inspections would succeed, and thus possibly prevent a American-led invasion of Iraq, only if Hussein's regime provides full cooperation, Blix said, adding that the renewed U.N. pressure and U.S. military threat might make that happen.

"They fear that the slightest little hitch in our relations will trigger military action," he said. "My guess is the Security Council will not tolerate any continued cat-and-mouse games."

But Blix warned that the search of about 700 factories, laboratories, military facilities and other sites for evidence of illegal weapons development or production might never resolve every question and doubt.

"Our experience in the past is that yes, they have been hiding things," he said. "There will always be a residue of uncertainty."

Then, pointing out that a year later authorities have not yet found the source of anthrax-bearing letters mailed through the U.S. Postal Service, Blix added: "You can't find every small piece in such a large country."

He expressed skepticism when asked about unofficial proposals to deploy thousands of troops from the United States or other nations alongside U.N. inspectors to ensure Iraqi cooperation.

"I don't see that inspectors are any more secure if they carry arms and are surrounded by an army," he said.

Blix said he was prepared to send an advance team to Iraq within days if Baghdad agrees. But he would need to negotiate logistical issues--from housing and security for inspectors to helicopter landing pads and local offices--before the first full teams could go in.

"We will not deploy any inspectors until we provide these practical arrangements," he said.

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