BAGHDAD, Iraq – Seventeen U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Baghdad Monday morning, the eyes of the world upon them as they prepared to hunt for Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Before boarding the transport plane in Cyprus, the teams — chemical and biological-weapons specialists from the U.N. proper, and others from the Vienna-based agency that conducts nuclear inspections — posed for a group photograph.
"I think that what matters [is that] we are going to do our job seriously and ... draw conclusions which will be credible for everybody," inspector Mark Baute told reporters Sunday in Cyprus.
The inspections, which begin Wednesday after a four-year hiatus, will have to be both tough enough for a skeptical U.S. government and diplomatic enough to avoid the Iraqi accusations of spying that doomed the last round of searches.
Baghdad over the weekend complained that the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the new inspections was so broad that war with the United States was almost inevitable, releasing a letter from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan detailing certain passages.
Sabri complained in particular that the resolution could turn "inaccurate statements [among] thousands of pages" of mandatory Iraqi reports into a supposed justification for military action.
"There is premeditation to target Iraq, whatever the pretext," the foreign minister wrote.
The Iraqi complaints were not expected to interfere with resumption of the inspections. Iraq had accepted the resolution in a Nov. 13 letter from Sabri to Annan.
In seven years' work ending in 1998, U.N. expert teams destroyed large amounts of chemical and biological weapons and longer-range missiles forbidden to Iraq by U.N. resolutions after the Gulf War, in which an Iraqi invasion force was driven from Kuwait. The inspectors also dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program before it could build a bomb.
The inspections were finally suspended amid disputes over U.N. access to sites deemed to be Saddam's personal property and Iraqi complaints that some inspectors were spying for the American military.
A new focus on Iraq by the U.S. administration of President Bush led to adoption of Resolution 1441 and the dispatch of inspectors back to Iraq with greater powers of unrestricted access to suspected weapons sites. Washington alleges that Iraq retains some prohibited weapons and may be producing others.
The Security Council resolution, adopted unanimously Nov. 7, demands that the Iraqis give up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or face "serious consequences."
The United States threatens an invasion to enforce Iraqi disarmament, with or without U.N. sanction. Other governments say a decision to wage war on Iraq can be made only by the Security Council.
In Egypt Monday, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged Iraq to cooperate.
"Inspections are Iraq's only opportunity to avoid war," ElBaradei said.
If it does not ensure the inspections come to a successful end, "Iraq knows that there will be serious consequences not only on Iraq but the entire region," he added.
The U.N. resolution requires Iraq to submit an accounting by Dec. 8 of its weapons programs, as well of chemical, biological and nuclear programs it claims are peaceful.
Any "false statements or omissions" in that declaration could contribute to a finding that it had committed a "material breach" of the resolution, a finding that might lead to military action.
But at the demand of France and Russia, a false statement or omission must be coupled with Iraq's failure to cooperate with inspectors to be declared a new "material breach."
Sabri's letter, dated Saturday and released Sunday, complained that this key passage is unjust, "because it considers the giving of inaccurate statements — taking into consideration that there are thousands of pages to be presented in those statements — is a material breach."
After talks with the Iraqis last week, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said they had expressed "particular concern" about what was expected of them in reporting on their chemical industry, a complex area in which many toxic products can be diverted to military use.
The foreign minister's letter also disputed the allegations that his government retained chemical or biological weapons and rebuilt weapons programs.
He also complained of what he termed arbitrary powers granted to inspectors, including "meeting people inside their country without the presence of a representative of their government, or asking them to leave the country with their families to meet [for interviews] abroad."
If the inspectors eventually certify that Iraq has cooperated fully with their disarmament work, U.N. resolutions call for the lifting of international economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The more than 300 U.N. inspectors include chemists, biologists, missile and ordnance experts and other specialists of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, and engineers and physicists of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Between 80 and 100 will be working in Iraq at any one time.
Their first missions are expected to be visits to Iraqi sites previously inspected in the 1990s, where they will check on cameras and other monitoring equipment left behind in many cases by earlier inspectors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.