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Iraqi Site Official Did Not Expect Inspectors

On Day 1 of the new U.N. weapons inspection program, a 40-vehicle convoy led by a team of inspectors meandered for 80 miles down highways and side roads, with Iraqi officials and a horde of journalists wondering what the first target would be.

Finally, the convoy veered off at the town of al-Amiriyah, 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, and pulled up to the steel gate of a graphite rod factory. Iraqi military guards swung open the gate, letting the inspectors' vehicles enter before slamming the door on about 100 journalists.

The efforts at surprise appeared effective Wednesday.

"We didn't expect it at all," said Ali Jasim Hussein, director of the nearby al-Rafah missile engine-testing station, where the inspectors spent five hours crisscrossing the grounds. "We opened the doors for them and openly let them work," Hussein said. "They checked all the equipment and documents, administrative and technical."

Beyond the gates at the graphite rod factory, inspectors entered a single-story building near a well-kept garden. About half the team spent an hour inside. The rest left after 15 minutes for the al-Rafah missile engine-testing compound.

The station was empty except for a few skeletal steel structures, a small concrete building with a TV antenna on the roof and a single-story office.

Hussein, wearing an olive-green military uniform, said the compound was attacked by U.S. and British warplanes in 1998 and had been visited several times before by U.N. inspectors. He said nothing at the compound violates U.N. Security Council resolutions. But he still expects a return visit soon.

Inspectors refused to say why they chose those sites and whether they found anything suspicious. Graphite has many uses, including as a moderator in nuclear power reactors -- not prohibited for Iraq -- and as a lubricant, possibly for missiles. Iraq is not allowed to develop missiles with ranges over 90 miles.

U.S. intelligence analysts have said satellite photos suggest that the al-Rafah station was equipped for missiles with a greater range than allowed.

Journalists were allowed just a few yards inside the al-Rafah gate after the inspectors left, but were barred from going any further or looking in any buildings.

U.N. nuclear inspectors, meanwhile, visited the Al-Tahadi Scientific Research Center six miles east of Baghdad. The director, Haitham Maamoud, said the center had never been involved in Iraq's nuclear program. He said the inspectors toured maintenance workshops and asked questions during a visit of more than three hours.

The inspection went smoothly, and factory officials answered all the questions they were asked, Maamoud said.

As at the graphite factory, journalists were allowed to follow inspectors to the Al-Tahadi center's gates but were barred from entry while the inspectors worked.

The policy appeared to be a compromise, after the issue of journalists' access had a point of contention. The inspectors hace said they do not want reporters tagging along as their presence may disrupt the work, while Iraqi officials had insisted the press have free access.

All the sites visited Wednesday were checked years ago by U.N. inspectors, and no significant new findings were reported. However, Wednesday's inspections were perhaps as much about how inspectors were received as what they might have found.

"We were welcomed in a polite and a professional way, and that's good enough for us," U.N. inspector Dimitrius Perricos said.