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Iraq Seems to Be Keeping Word in Allowing Access to Facilities

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

Nearly a month after Iraq made fresh promises of access for United Nations weapons inspectors, the Baghdad government by all accounts is living up to its word for now. The results, said American and British officials at the core of the special U.N. panel's support, are decidedly a mixed blessing for the inspectors.

Last week the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, conducted nine of the most sensitive surprise inspections in its seven-year history - and came up largely empty, according to accounts emerging from the Clinton administration and British government.

That is neither surprising nor alarming to those who focus on the technical side of the long cat-and-mouse game with Iraqi weapons scientists, but the absence of fresh evidence has not helped UNSCOM bolster its declining support in the Security Council and U.N. Secretariat.

Iraq's previous refusal to give inspectors entry to various "sensitive" and "presidential" sites - and its boycott of inspector Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine often described in Iraqi propaganda as an American spy - touched off a crisis in January that led to the brink of military conflict with the United States and Britain.

But Iraq backed off both positions in a Feb. 23 agreement with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Diplomats in New York and Washington now say Iraq is on good behavior in hopes of killing the linked program of inspections and economic sanctions when it comes up for review in October.

To test Iraq's compliance, Ritter led an inspection team on Sunday, March 8 into the new headquarters of Iraq's defense ministry - an event that Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz once said would be "an act of war."

Not only was it the first time the facility had been inspected, but Ritter even surveyed Aziz's own office there, according to Clinton administration officials.

Ritter's team, which includes scientists and computer analysts who specialize in uncovering Iraqi concealment methods, made similar forays into offices of the Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization, both run by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's younger son Qusay.

UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler said on ABC television this morning that before the Annan agreement the inspectors had been refused entry to more than one of the sites.