Daunting task awaits UN arms chief
Arms specialists see many obstacles for inspection team
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 11/18/2002
NITED NATIONS -- UN weapons chief Hans Blix arrives in Baghdad today to begin his hunt for Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, equipped with new high-tech gadgetry, a firm UN mandate that Iraq disarm, and the threat of war should it not comply.
But even so, the 74-year-old Swede has a nearly impossible mission, former UN weapons inspectors and disarmament specialists say.
Obstacles, both practical and philosophical, lie in his way, they say. There are not enough arms inspectors for the blitz needed to foil Iraq's efforts to hide its weapons. There is no paper trail to verify what Iraq possesses, as any weapons-related materiel that has arrived since the UN inspections ended four years ago was smuggled, they say.
The arms inspectors will face Saddam Hussein, a dictator whose skills at deception are well honed. And ultimately, Blix's inspections will be only as successful as Baghdad is willing to comply.
"I don't believe any conceivable inspections regime can successfully disarm an Iraq that wants to keep its weapons," said David Kay, a former UN weapons inspector who works for the Potomac Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization.
And Blix, an affable international lawyer who mixes dry wit with patient diplomacy, was not the UN's -- nor Washington's -- first choice for the job. Blix, who once headed the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, was plucked from retirement when the UN Security Council couldn't agree on anyone else.
Indeed, since Blix was named to head the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission two years ago, the Bush administration has made it clear that it finds him suspect. Earlier this year, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz instructed the CIA to investigate how Blix -- who as IAEA chief ensured countries upheld the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- concluded in the late 1980s that Iraq had no nuclear program. UN weapons inspectors later discovered that Iraq had a very active one.
Some specialists say they fear that Blix, who fights his battles with lawyerly persuasion rather than military bravado, won't be tough enough to stand up to Hussein.
"Blix comes at this wishing it were an academic exercise, a group of people who could be trusted and would play by the rules," Kay said. "He prefers to negotiate away disagreement."
Others disagree. Behind Blix's professorial twinkle, they say, lies a man of determination and grit. And Blix learned from Iraq -- as evidenced by his demands for tougher IAEA inspection guidelines, which he later used to uncover North Korea's nuclear program.
"He's a very skilled diplomat and talented negotiator," said Linda Gallini, a disarmament specialist in the US State Department who has worked alongside Blix for nearly two decades. "He's certainly up to the task."
The task is a daunting one. UN Resolution 1441, passed unanimously by the Security Council on Nov. 8, demands that Iraq declare all its weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences."
It will be up to Blix and his team to verify whether Iraq's declaration is accurate. His inspectors will search for chemical and biological weapons and the missiles that could carry them, while inspectors led by the current IAEA chief, Mohammed El Baradei, will look for nuclear weapons.
But should Iraq impede the inspections -- or lie about its weapons holdings -- Blix must report that to the council, which then must decide whether Iraq is in "material breach" of its obligations to disarm.
Blix insists that "war and peace" are not in his hands, but in those of the Security Council. But his recommendations will shape the diplomats' conclusions. That already puts Blix in a tight spot: Washington has made it clear that it will consider any lack of Iraqi cooperation a "material breach," but Blix has repeatedly said it must be a significant act of defiance.
"We still have to use our common sense in judging whether something is a way of preventing us, hindering us, or it is not," Blix told reporters last week. He arrived in Cyprus last weekend.
Logistics will preoccupy the 25-member UN advance team until Nov. 27, when preliminary inspections are to begin. The arms experts are expected to focus on "rebaselining," or tracking down the equipment used in developing weapons of mass destruction tagged by inspectors four years ago.
Then, on Dec. 8 -- the date that Blix told reporters last week "is one of the most important moments we foresee" -- Iraq must declare all its weapons of mass destruction and related civilian industries.
Iraq, which maintains it has no weapons of mass destruction, must come clean by then, and the Bush administration, which asserts that Iraq does harbor weapons of mass destruction, must step forward and make its case.
"It will be the moment for those who claim they have evidence . . . to put it on the table," Blix said.
UN weapons teams will then fan out in force so they can verify Iraq's declaration, focusing on several key areas among 700 suspected weapons sites. As inspectors search an area, taking photographs and looking for evidence, surveillance helicopters will hover overhead.
Thanks to technology, the inspectors have new, more portable devices to aid them this time. Among them: ground-penetrating radar, to locate weapons hidden underground; a remote device that can sample munitions; a scope that can detect gamma radiation; and a machine that can determine whether metal objects are potential nuclear components.
But technology is still no match for manpower. Former UN weapons inspectors said they fear that the 100 inspectors slated to be in Iraq will be too few to outwit Hussein.
"They will be up against a concealment plan," said Terry Taylor, a former UN weapons inspector, now Washington director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"They will need more resources than they have."
Nor will these inspectors have the paper trail to follow that their predecessors did -- a list of all the suppliers, from Russia to the United States, who had shipped weapons or related materiel to Iraq before 1990. Now, UN weapons inspectors, unless they have intelligence otherwise, must go out and hunt for items they have no means to prove exist.
"I believe this is mission impossible," said Tim Trevan, who served with the last UN inspections team. "I believe it is necessary -- so that the international community can give Iraq one last chance -- but it is mission impossible, nonetheless."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/18/2002.
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