Gulf Crisis: UN weapons inspectors back in Iraq

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THE UNITED Nations mission to search for and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction returned to the Iraqi capital with the threat of force hanging over the Baghdad government should it fail to co-operate with the UN agency.

Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, said he was looking forward to returning to normal operations after months of controversy.

Forty-eight staff including inspectors and administrators refused to comment on their inspection schedule. "We've got a lot of work to do. We've got priorities to sort out," said Caroline Cross, Unscom spokeswoman. "The work that's going to go on between us and the Iraqi government is confidential. It is the business of the United Nations and Iraq. If we have any problems in our activities, it's our business to report this to Unscom headquarters and on to the security council and not to the international media."

Unscom has complained for months that its work has been undermined by Iraqi obstruction. In August, the Iraqi authorities stopped co-operation with inspectors who conducted spot checks on suspected sites at short notice.

At the end of October they ended all co-operation with Unscom, complaining that the agency was full of spies working for the CIA and the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.

Mr Butler, Unscom's chairman, expressed the hope that this time there would be full co-operation from the Iraqi authorities. "Full access to anywhere we want to go. Everyone is saying that's what we should have. We want to test it as soon as possible," he said. The observers will be watching their mission very carefully.

The United States and Britain have warned of immediate military action without reference to the UN if there is any obstruction of the work of the weapons inspectors. The UN envoy in Baghdad, Prakash Shah, has left New York and is expected to conduct intensive discussion with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Mr Shah was a key figure in preventing a huge military strike against Iraq over the weekend.

Describing the settlement as a "victory for diplomacy" he warned that it was far from carved in stone. "These are occasions which we would like to repeat but we cannot be sure that these are things which can happen again and again. I cannot guarantee or tell you anything authentically whether this agreement will survive or not," he said.

At the top of his list of meetings will be one with Mr Butler. Mr Shah is likely to impress on him the desirability of treading carefully in the first few days of operation to avoid unbalancing a very delicate situation.

Mr Butler has been criticised by many in the United Nations for his brash manner and willingness to speak publicly about difficulties he is experiencing with the Iraqi authorities.

The stakes are high. Any rash decisions or outbursts from any party at this sensitive moment could reactivate the military option and bring an unannounced hailstorm of Tomahawk Cruise missiles.