Inspectors keep working amid Iraqi criticism, U.S. pressure

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Wearing combat pants, hard shoes and a sky blue jungle hat, the U.N. missile expert stepped out of her white all-terrain vehicle, flashed a smile and told waiting Iraqi government officials what she thought they needed to know of her plans for the day.

"It's a short inspection and you'll be back by 2 p.m.," she said.

"How long will we be today?" one of the Iraqis pressed.

"It's a reasonable distance. Do you want me to tell you which site, too?" the inspector replied with a polite laugh. The men laughed too, and off went everybody -- Iraqis, U.N. inspectors and trailing journalists -- in a convoy of 4X4s.

Officially, the Iraqis are liaison officers, assigned to help the inspectors -- empowered by a U.N. resolution to search anywhere, anytime and without warning -- if they run into trouble gaining access to a site. The Iraqis also likely serve as their government's eyes and ears, poised with radios to tip off the object of a search as soon as they can guess where the inspectors are headed.

Being an arms inspector in Iraq these days is a tricky business.

Accused of spying

Iraq accuses the inspectors of gathering intelligence -- charges U.N. officials deny. The inspectors also are under pressure from the United States, which has sent tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the Gulf and has threatened to go to war to disarm Saddam Hussein, saying it doesn't believe Iraqi denials of stockpiling banned weapons.

"We are aware of what is happening around us," said Hiro Ueki, the inspectors' spokesman in Baghdad. "We are not politicians. We have a job to do in Iraq and we want to do our job right."

On Monday, nuclear and chemical weapons inspector teams visited Baghdad's technological university and two science colleges.

A nuclear team made an inspection at the Ibn Rushd company, which the Information Ministry said maintains firefighting equipment and provides quality control for construction materials.

A team of missile experts visited the al-Ameer factory, 80 miles of Baghdad, which at one time was involved in assembling Scud missile components.

In other developments Monday:

-- The U.N. nuclear agency reaffirmed it could take as long as a year for inspectors to finish their mission. Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the world was growing "impatient" with Iraq's "passive" cooperation with the inspectors.

-- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, faced with strong anti-war sentiment in Britain, defended his strong stance against Baghdad, saying Saddam must be disarmed by force if he does not comply with U.N. resolutions.

-- A contingent of British logistics experts arrived in Kuwait, Iraq's southern neighbor, to plan for a possible military deployment.

-- U.S. warplanes attacked an anti-ship missile launcher near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the Pentagon said. An Iraqi military spokesman, apparently commenting on the same raid, said six people were wounded in coalition airstrikes.

-- At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II issued his strongest message yet opposing war in Iraq, saying military force must be "the very last option," while calling for stepped-up diplomacy and dialogue.

The Pentagon last week ordered the deployment of about 62,000 more U.S. troops to the Gulf -- doubling its current troop strength in the region.

The United States could use the inspectors' reports to justify war -- or deem them irrelevant if it still feels Baghdad is hiding weapons.

The inspection team has been built up quickly since 17 experts arrived in November and began work. There are now a little more than 100 inspectors out of a total staff of 200 personnel.

The two-story Canal Hotel has been turned over to the United Nations to serve as inspectors central. Cleaning and maintenance crews from Cyprus, where the inspectors have a rear base, were flown in to ensure Iraqi access to the Canal would be minimal. The building was swept for electronic listening devices before the inspectors occupied it.

Every morning at 8:30, the inspectors leave the Canal. Trailed by journalists, the inspectors make their way to a side road some 200 yards away, where their Iraqi liaisons wait. There, the chief of any given inspection team emerges from a vehicle to speak with the Iraqis.

From time to time, the inspectors, using their own maps, get lost in Baghdad's narrow streets, causing much excitement among residents.

The good-natured teasing that prevailed between the missile expert and her Iraqi liaisons during the inspection last week is typical.

But managers at suspect sites have complained that inspectors show up on Fridays, Islam's day of rest.

Last week, the inspectors visited one of about 10 government buildings within a huge complex on the edge of Baghdad that included apartment blocks. Following their usual practice of "freezing" the area, the experts wound up keeping hundreds of people from leaving for hours, angering men, women and children.

"It was a difficult situation," said Ueki. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that we are insensitive to the needs of people. Anyone who wanted to leave could leave, but subject to a search."

The inspectors have visited a variety of sites, from al-Tuwaitha, Iraq's major nuclear research center, to a factory Iraq says produces baby milk but the United States claimed made biological weapons.

It's not all work. Inspectors have been seen relaxing at Baghdad restaurants in the evenings. Just before Christmas, reporters chased a group of inspectors through Baghdad's streets -- only to find many of them headed for a souk for souvenir shopping.

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