Weapons Inspectors Return To Iraq with New AuthorityBy Michael Slackman
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- CAIRO, Egypt
United Nations weapons inspectors returned to Iraq on Monday for the first time in nearly four years, backed by the threat of force and the authority to search anywhere, any time for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons -- even in Saddam Hussein’s lavish palaces.
Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, immediately sought to calm fears that their arrival in Baghdad brought the region closer to war.
“We have come here for one single reason, and that is the world wants to have assurance that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Blix said shortly after they landed at Saddam Hussein International Airport.
Credible inspections are “in the interests of Iraq and the interests of the world,” he said.
The United States has threatened to attack Iraq if it does not cooperate with the inspectors, who are operating under a tough new Security Council resolution that gives Baghdad “a final opportunity” to disarm and warns of serious consequences if it does not.
The first test of Iraq’s intentions could come as early as Nov. 27, when Blix said preliminary checks are scheduled to begin. Perhaps the more important date is Dec. 8, when Iraq is to file a list of any banned weapons programs. The second deadline appears to be a conflict waiting to happen, since Iraq insists it has no such programs.
Both the United States and Iraq have stoked the uncertainty surrounding the inspections, doing all they can to keep the other guessing.
Iraq’s parliament, though relatively powerless, made a show of voting against accepting the return of weapons inspectors just one day before Saddam’s foreign minister notified U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan SM ’72 that Iraq would abide by the resolution.
As Blix and his crew were preparing Monday for high-tech equipment to be unloaded from their cargo jet, Iraqi ground forces and United States fighter jets were firing at each other in the so-called no-fly zone over the northern part of the country.
The Bush administration has said it will give inspections a chance, but that firing at U.S. warplanes patrolling the no-fly zone might well be considered a “material breach” of the U.N. resolution -- and if confirmed by the Security Council, could trigger an attack.
White House officials said Monday that U.S. warplanes would continue to fire back when targeted by the Iraqis, but that the Bush administration was not ready yet to take the matter to the Security Council.
“I would emphasize that this goes to showing his intention to comply and cooperate,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “But in the meantime, our aircraft will respond when fired upon.
“Our view is zero tolerance, that Saddam Hussein does not need to be playing games at this point. No cat and mouse. It is time for him to comply and cooperate and disarm,” McClellan said.
Diplomats said that the tough talk from the White House, while distressing to its Security Council allies, might be a way of keeping pressure on Baghdad while inspections begin. But retaliatory attacks on Iraqi military installations might also help U.S. and British forces destroy Baghdad’s defense capabilities before an all-out war.