Fury in Baghdad at Western `plot'

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THE BIGGEST test of Iraq's wiIIingness to rejoin the international community of nations could happen as early as midday today. The weapons inspectors of the United Nations mission (Unscom) will then start their first foray into the murky underworld of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons sites.

The inspectors' first task will be to verify that the cameras and chemical- sensing devices that were left behind after their abrupt departure last Wednesday have not been damaged.

Iraqi officials have gone silent in advance of the return of Unscom. The newspapers, however, have been vocal. The English-language Baghdad Observer said that Iraq "has cut the ground from under those drumming for pushing the Gulf region to the precipice of war".

"[Bill] Clinton revealed his arrogance yesterday," the government newspaper AI-Jumburiya said, complaining that the United States President's comments were "full of provocation [intended] to ignite internal rebellion". All the newspapers and official media sources maintain that the government will give full co-operation to Unscom.

The belief that Unscom is part of a US plot to justify the maintenance of sanctions is widespread, even among Iraqis with little love for their government. "The Americans have laid out their cards. They want an end to Saddam [Hussein] and they want their own people in power. I am very pessimistic," said one independent-minded Iraqi, who cannot be named.

Meanwhile, most of the humanitarian workers responsible for co-ordinating the flow of food and medicines into Iraq under the oil-for-food programme have arrived back in Baghdad. They are trying to pick up the pieces of a programme that was put in jeopardy by their hasty departure and by the decision of the Lloyd's Register company last week to withdraw its certification monitors at the borders; without their authentication, suppliers cannot be paid for goods.

The UN has ordered the Lloyd's monitors back to their posts as soon as possible. Humanitarian workers will now have to pick up the pieces. Many perishable items are en route to Iraq and have been caught in a bottleneck as the recent crisis brought trade to a halt.

Iraqis rely on the programme for the basics of life. Rice, flour, cooking oil and other items are supplied by the government but it would be impossible to survive on this ration alone. Many find that they have to supplement their diet by any means possible to keep body and soul together. One of the least-emphasised effects of a US and British bombing campaign would have been the end of the oil-for-food deal and probably every UN programme. The effects are likely to have been every bit as bad as any bombing - sending Iraq back to the days or hunger and panic which followed the Gulf War in 1991.

Testing the goodwill of the Iraqi leadership has become a major part of the work of the United Nations. The AI-Thawra daily newspaper commented that Iraq was committed to its relations with Unscom in line with word and spirit of Security Council resolutions. The next few days will show whether that is the truth.