| UN arms inspectors on their way to a heavily-guarded weapons site near Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, Nov. 27 (Reuters): United Nations weapons inspectors drove out of Baghdad today on their first missions for four years to search for banned Iraqi weapons.
Armed with a new UN mandate and the implicit threat of a US invasion if President Saddam Hussein fails to cooperate, inspectors tailed by hordes of journalists in long convoys of cars raced out to two industrial sites outside the capital.
There was no immediate word from them on their visits. The head of the military-guarded al-Tahadi (Challenge) plant, 20 km from the city, said there were no problems: “They had questions and we replied to all of them,” he told reporters.
The complex maintains water pumps and machinery, he said.
Inspectors pulled out in 1998 after seven years checking Iraq had disarmed after the Gulf War. They complained of a lack of access and said they believed evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and missiles was being cleared out of suspect plants while inspectors argued with guards on the gates.
This time, under Security Council resolution 1441, they will brook no such prevarication, even at sprawling “presidential” compounds that Saddam previously demanded should be off-limits.
“I think everybody feels excited and anxious to get going and very determined to start this systematic inspection,” said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the teams from the UN monitoring body and the International Atomic Energy Agency. There was little delay today when the inspectors, in eight white UN jeeps, arrived at the Tahadi plant.
Guards kept reporters in about 50 cars outside, where a portrait of the president stood with the slogan: “God Preserve Iraq and Saddam”.
Today’s missions seemed low-key. The first lasted three hours. The second, to the Saddam plant in Anbar province, 140 km to the northwest went on into the afternoon. Some of the 17 experts already in Iraq were to brief reporters at their headquarters in Baghdad’s old Canal Hotel at 6 pm (1500 GMT). Former chief weapons inspector Richard Butler said they had begun “modestly” and may simply have been checking data from previous monitoring.
He told CNN from Sydney the real test would come when they turned up unannounced at more sensitive sites.
UN secretary general Kofi Annan reminded Iraqis they faced serious consequences if the do not cooperate.
“I don’t think war is inevitable,” Annan told Europe 1 radio on a visit to Paris. “But if... Iraq continues to create problems and the inspectors feel they cannot do their job, then the Security Council will look at what to do.” Though Annan said that inspections could take a year to complete, potential crises could come much sooner, though not, it seems likely, without dividing international opinion.
The November 8 resolution gives Iraq until December 8 to make a full declaration of its arsenal. State-controlled media repeated today Baghdad’s denial that any exists.
Air raid sirens sounded over Baghdad this morning, followed by the all-clear some 10 minutes later. An Iraqi civil defence official said Western planes flew over the capital. But the US and Britain, whose air forces patrol “no-fly” zones to the north and south, denied approaching the city.