Published November 18, 2002
LARNACA, Cyprus – The United Nations' top weapons inspectors were heading Monday for the mission that could bring the world a measure of peace — or war.
The chief U.N. weapons inspector landed Sunday in Cyprus to assemble his team for a return to Baghdad and said the "question of war and peace" awaits an answer from Saddam Hussein.
President Bush has warned that Saddam faces military action if he fails to cooperate fully with the inspectors, flying to Iraq on Monday. Saddam faces a three-week deadline to reveal weapons of mass destruction or provide convincing evidence he no longer has any.
Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, overseeing the International Atomic Energy Agency's search for nuclear arms, flew to Cyprus from Vienna, Austria. They joined about two dozen other members of the advance team assembling here to prepare for a resumption of inspections after a nearly four-year absence.
"The question of war and peace remains first of all in the hands of Iraq, the Security Council and the members of the Security Council," Blix said.
Blix, who will lead the overall mission, said his team was prepared to meet the challenge of ensuring Iraqi compliance. But he said he hoped Iraq would not try to hide anything.
The 74-year-old Swedish diplomat said inspectors would be taking along much more sophisticated equipment than was available when the inspection program was suspended in December 1998.
"We do of course expect to get tips from the [U.N.] member states," Blix said. "We also have modern equipment that is superior to what we had in the past. But ... we would like the Iraqis to declare, and this is an opportunity for them to do so and we hope that they will seize that opportunity."
Bush is insisting on "zero tolerance" of the Iraqi delaying tactics and deceit which marked the previous inspection effort.
The United States is waiting to see Iraq's response to inspections before going to the Security Council for debate of military action, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday. "It seems to me that what will happen is a pattern of behavior will evolve and then people will make judgments with respect to it," Rumsfeld told reporters flying with him to a defense ministers' summit in Santiago, Chile.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian, said there was a need for "intrusive verifications," meaning inspectors "will use every means at our disposal to make sure that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction."
Also, Iraqis with key information would be interviewed outside the country if it was necessary to protect their safety. But, he acknowledged, "if people do not want to talk, we obviously will not be able to force them to talk."
However, Blix favors cooperation instead of confrontation with the Iraqis, and the differences in approach could create tension between the inspectors and the Bush administration, U.N. officials said Sunday on condition of anonymity.
One official said the Americans are keen to beef up the mission with staff and equipment Blix may not consider necessary.
"We're happy for the handshake, but we don't want the hug," said the official, referring to Blix's interest in U.S. support but also in avoiding the appearance that Americans are running the show.
ElBaradei spoke of "second-guessing" when asked about pressure from Security Council members. Blix acknowledged input from different governments, but said, "It is we who will decide what to do."
Although Blix has urged the United States to provide more intelligence support for his mission, he also warned over the weekend of the pitfalls of such cooperation, saying in Paris that the previous inspection mission failed in part because of its close association with government intelligence agencies and Western states.
The last inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 amid Iraqi allegations that some were spying for the United States and countercharges that Iraq was not cooperating with the teams. Their departure was followed by four days of punishing U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq.
Blix and ElBaradei warned Sunday they would not tolerate attempts to coerce their staff into surreptitiously sharing information with governments.
"I can never guarantee that everyone will be 100 percent in my service," Blix said. "But if we find anyone doing anything else, it's bye-bye."
In a nod to U.S. concerns, Blix and ElBaradei said inspections will be tough, thorough and leave no space for deceit.
"We do not take 'no' for an answer," ElBaradei said. "We have to verify to make sure a 'no' is actually a 'no.'"
Blix has said that preliminary inspections likely will resume Nov. 27, with full-scale checks beginning after Iraq files a declaration of its banned weapons programs by a Dec. 8 deadline.
Blix then has 60 days to report back to the U.N. Security Council with his findings.
Saddam agreed Wednesday to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons after the Security Council approved a toughly worded resolution.
Baghdad, however, insisted in a nine-page letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that it does not have any such weapons.
The U.N. resolution gives Iraq "a final opportunity" to eliminate its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them. It gives inspectors the right to go anywhere at anytime and warns Iraq it will face "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate.
After Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions that cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors verify that Iraq is free of such weapons and missiles.
The advance team will reopen the office used by the previous inspections regime and set up secure phone lines and transportation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.