BAGHDAD, Iraq – The inspectors don't want journalists at their elbows. The Iraqis say they'll give them free rein. With their cameras and instant analysis, international journalists have become an early point of contention in the tense showdown over Iraq.
When the two leaders of the inspection program -- Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei -- met with Iraqi officials last week, they made clear that they did not want journalists tagging along with inspectors -- especially at suspected weapons sites.
"We don't want journalists to be with us in the facilities," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "We believe we can't carry out our professional job" with journalists in tow.
But Iraq, which maintains one of the most restrictive press policies in the Mideast, is now championing free access for journalists -- at least as far as covering the inspections is concerned. Iraqi officials say they want maximum media coverage to prove to the world that they don't have weapons of mass destruction, despite Washington's claims to the contrary.
"We will allow everybody to follow in order that international public opinion be acquainted with what is going on in our country and from our point of view, the press will be granted full access to every single site," an Iraqi official said on condition of anonymity. "Taking into consideration the transparency of our position, we are not hiding anything. Every journalist is allowed."
U.N. officials appeared concerned that reporters, lacking the inspectors' technical and scientific expertise, might be too quick to report that no banned materials had been found before the experts had time to draw their own conclusions.
Apparently realizing the impossibility of excluding the media entirely, the U.N. team proposed that a limited number of journalists representing print, photos and television be allowed to go along on the first inspection Wednesday. The U.N. team proposed that it organize and manage the media pool.
The Iraqis, however, insisted it was their country and they would be responsible for media arrangements. On Tuesday, the Information Ministry told each news organization that it would be permitted to send at least two representatives along with the inspectors.
It was unclear, however, how the arrangement would work and whether journalists would be permitted to enter the sites. Senior inspector Dimitriou Perricos told reporters Tuesday that journalists could accompany the teams to the site but must stay outside.
"We have lots of work to do," Perricos said. "We want to be friends."
The U.N. team is clearly reluctant to have journalists reporting what the inspectors have or have not found, especially since those findings may not be clear to the professionals themselves without lengthy analysis of data.
Blix told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that he had advised the Iraqis that inspections were "serious business" and "could not be allowed to turn into some circus."
"We want to be the ones who draw the conclusions about what we see," Fleming said. "We are the experts. Our nuclear inspectors know what given `dual use' items might mean, whereas a journalist doesn't. So we don't think it will be helpful at all to have the media with us during inspection. We hope to be as forthcoming as we can, after an inspection to provide a certain amount of information."