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U.N. Inspectors Arrive in Iraq, Pledge to Search for Weapons

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

The first contingent of U.N. inspectors landed here Monday evening pledging to push hard in scouring Iraq to determine whether President Saddam Hussein’s government still possesses weapons of mass destruction or has revived secret programs to develop them.

The inspectors said they plan to assess immediately Iraq’s pledge to give international experts unfettered access to any site they wish to visit, a daunting assignment whose results could decide whether the Bush administration launches a war against Saddam’s government.

The U.N.’s chief inspector, Hans Blix, told the Security Council at U.N. headquarters in New York that he has informed Iraq he will exercise his right to inspect Saddam’s presidential compounds and other sensitive sites. But he also noted that Iraq, while pledging cooperation, insisted inspections of the presidential sites and government ministries could not be conducted in the same manner as those of other facilities.

“We’ve had a lot of promises of cooperation,” said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman here for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is coordinating the inspections with a special U.N. commission assigned to examine biological, chemical and missile programs in Iraq. “We believe that’s a good start. But we have suspicious minds. We’re here to test cooperation among other things.”

In an apparent reference to U.S. criticism of the inspectors’ plan to begin with low-key searches, Fleming said the IAEA and Blix’s U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission have “appealed to countries to give us the patience that is needed to carry out comprehensive inspections.” She added: “We have a huge mandate. It’s going to take time.”

Iraq has declared it no longer possesses any weapons or missiles banned by U.N. resolutions. The U.S. government repeatedly has said Iraq has secretly held onto chemical weapons, may have biological agents and is seeking to develop nuclear arms.