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U.N. Weapons Inspectors Land in Baghdad, Prepare for Work

By Craig Turner
Los Angeles Times

More than three dozen U.N. weapons inspectors led by a controversial former U.S. Marine landed in Baghdad, Iraq, on Thursday, setting up what could be the first test of the new inspection procedures negotiated by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

American Scott Ritter's team, reportedly including 40 to 50 inspectors, specializes in exposing Iraq's efforts to conceal illegal weapons programs. Baghdad's refusal in January to cooperate with Ritter's previous inspection trip helped trigger the recent confrontation that nearly led to warfare between the United States and Iraq.

The United States and Britain have kept a strong military force in the Persian Gulf and have threatened to use it against Iraq if its government refuses to honor a Feb. 22 agreement with Annan to cooperate fully with the inspectors.

It was not immediately clear if Ritter's inspectors would try to enter any of the eight "presidential compounds" that were the subject of Annan's negotiations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Detailed procedures for inspecting those sites were still being worked out at U.N. headquarters here Thursday. They call for the inspectors to be accompanied by diplomats during visits to the presidential sites, and U.N. officials said it was not certain that the logistics of the new system would be completed before Ritter's team leaves Iraq.

The sensitive and invasive nature of Ritter's investigations, as well as his admittedly confrontational nature, has made him a special target of Iraqi complaints.

Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz has accused Ritter of spying for the United States, an allegation denied by Ritter, the United States, and the United Nations. Even if Ritter's inspectors do not seek to enter presidential palaces and their outlying buildings, they are likely to show up at other places that the Iraqis consider sensitive, including intelligence facilities.

On his January trip, Ritter was investigating reports by Iraqi opposition groups that Iraq had tested chemical weapons on prisoners during the mid-1990s.

Aziz vehemently denied that Iraq had conducted any human experimentation. Because the Iraqis refused to fully cooperate, Ritter's investigation of the charge was not completed.

Iraqi officials downplayed Ritter's arrival. The official Iraqi news agency quoted Maj. Gen. Mohammed Amin, liaison to the inspectors, as saying Ritter's team was "expected to undertake surprise visits to a number of sensitive sites."

Alan Dacey, a U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, said Ritter had arrived for a "normal inspection."

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council cautioned Iraq that it would face the "severest consequences" if it fails to adhere to the pact signed with Annan.