| UN inspectors arrive in Baghdad aboard a UN plane from Larnaca, Cyprus. (AFP)
Baghdad, Nov. 25 (Reuters): United Nations weapons inspectors landed in Iraq today to begin a crucial mission which could tip the balance between peace and war in West Asia.
A group of 17 inspectors, assigned to resume work in Iraq after a four-year hiatus, arrived in Baghdad at around 1355 GMT aboard a chartered cargo plane emblazoned with the UN insignia.
An advance team of UN logistics experts has been in Iraq since last week, preparing the ground for a resumption of inspections scheduled for November 27. The Iraqi leadership denies there are any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in the country.
Iraq is obliged by a toughly worded Security Council resolution to permit unfettered access to the inspections team.
Resolution 1441 obliges Baghdad to allow the inspectors to peer into every corner of the country. The inspectors must give their first report to the UN Security Council by January 27.
Yesterday, Iraqi authorities made public an angry letter to the UN over the resolution’s terms. In the first detailed response since Iraq accepted the resolution on November 13, Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri gave an item by item reply.
“The real motive was to create pretexts to attack Iraq under an international cover,” Sabri wrote in the letter.
Baghdad agreed to produce a full account of its weapons programme by a December 8 deadline and said UN inspectors would be given free access to all sites across the country.
“We know where we want to go,” Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is part of the inspection effort with the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, said before the white C-130 Hercules aircraft left Larnaca airport in Cyprus bound for Baghdad.
Oil prices climbed today as the arms inspectors geared up for a mission that could deliver peace or war in Iraq.
North Sea benchmark Brent crude stood 29 cents up at $25.50 a barrel shortly before the inspectors left Cyprus, while US light crude rose 25 cents to $27.01 a barrel. Prices eased back slightly later in the day.
Oil traders fear war in West Asia may disrupt crucial flows of crude oil from the region, which pumps a quarter of global supplies. Sabri’s angry comments worried traders further.
“Iraq seems to think that a war is inevitable,” said Christopher Bellew, a broker at Prudential-Bache International in London. In Cairo today, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said: “If we can give a positive report, the inspections will be an alternative to war, not a precursor to war.” He added, after a meeting with Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa: “The real test will be when the inspections start.”