Baghdad, Nov. 19 (Reuters): UN inspectors got down to work in Iraq after a four-year break today, talking to Iraqi officials and dusting out their old offices as they prepared to vet hundreds of potential sites for weapons of mass destruction.
But, the day after chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix and a team of 30 experts arrived in Baghdad, the state-run Iraqi press struck a pessimistic note, saying their efforts would not stop the US from launching military action against Iraq.
“The problem is not related to the arrival of the inspectors or starting their work in Iraq,” al-Iraq newspaper said in a front-page editorial. “The American regime wants to launch an aggression under the pretext that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
US President George W. Bush prepared to leave Washington for a Nato summit in Prague, where he said he would seek support for his hardline policy against Iraq, but indicated he would make no request for Nato military help.
Bush has said the inspections, on the tough terms set out in a new UN resolution, are Baghdad’s last chance to abandon peacefully its alleged chemical, biological and nuclear arms programmes. He has threatened war if Iraq obstructs the mission.
Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the UN inspectors, said Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, would be speaking to Iraqi counterparts on political and diplomatic issues before leaving Iraq tomorrow.
The rest of the team, Buchanan said, would be putting the monitoring centre in the former Canal Hotel back into action after the four-year hiatus. “There’s a lot of dust to clear out,” he said.
“We need to get new computers in and we need to get new communications equipment to re-establish secure communications,” he said. “We need to get transportation arranged, radios and to get the laboratory up and running.”
The initial inspection team proper, consisting of about a dozen people, is expected to arrive around November 25, with inspections starting two days later. At full strength, there will be approximately 100 inspectors.
“There will be a range of (inspection) sites, civilian and military... hundreds, possibly,” Buchanan said.