Hard life and times on the arms trail inspector

Unscom's inspectors aren't merely unpopular with Iraqis. They fight other UN factions too, finds Richard Downes
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The Independent Online
BACK ONCE MORE in the Canal Hotel, on the outskirts of Baghdad, the weapons inspectors and monitors of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) had every reason last week to feel depressed by the videotapes they were watching.

At a number of plants around Iraq, Unscom has cameras permanently trained on machinery that could be used to restart Saddam Hussein's weapons production programme. They were left running while the inspectors were hastily evacuated to the Holiday Inn in Bahrain, and the tapes showed that while the Unscom teams were lounging round the pool hundreds of miles away, the machinery was being moved out of sight.

Wearily resuming a programme started seven years ago and still far from complete, the monitors checked air-sampling instruments at the same sites. They showed nothing untoward, but a number of devices had run out of paper or had failed in the absence of maintenance.

The regular showdowns between Iraq and the UN are just another burden for Unscom's 100-odd staff in Baghdad, who in "normal" periods are reinforced by four or five separate teams of up to 20 each, visiting from New York. The mobile teams are meant to be the lightning force of Unscom, sent out to conduct spot inspections. But their job is almost impossible now, according to one diplomat resident in Baghdad.

"For all we know, there are refrigerated trucks travelling the country full of anthrax, to evade the inspectors. We know they are hiding things. Every time Unscom gets close to something the Iraqis cause a crisis and the inspectors have to go back to New York," he said.

Members of the Iraqi Monitoring Agency accompany the inspectors on each visit, leaving the Unscom compound at 8am and following the teams wherever they go. Frustrated and infuriated by the way they are controlled, two leading members of Unscom's inspectorate have resigned so far this year.

Within the UN headquarters there are divisions over Unscom. France, Russia and China believe it to be too aggressive and unnecessarily intrusive, while for Britain and the US, its work is essential. Other UN agencies resent what is seen as the special arrangements for Unscom, including its high cost. "They cost $1m per person every year. I could save half of the dying children in Iraq with that money," said one aid worker.

All these strains are evident in the UN compound in Baghdad, which is more like a ghetto than a holiday resort. The factions fight furiously among themselves, and Unscom's personnel are no more popular with their UN colleagues than they are with the Iraqis. Drawn from the military of more than half a dozen countries, the Unscom inspectors' frolics in the UN bar would make a rugby club social look mild. Bad language, prodigious drinking and general rowdiness have distinguished them from their more gentle counterparts in the "softer" agencies.

There is a profound clash of cultures with UN cultural and humanitarian workers, who have boycotted the nightly sessions in disgust. "I haven't spoken to anyone from Unscom for a year, and I have no intention of talking to them ever again," one said curtly. But no one can dispute the importance of Unscom's work.

The ability of Iraq, the Arab world's most ambitious military power, to make weapons of mass destruction is proven. The Iran-Iraq war showed how its chemical and biological weapons programme had developed, and by the 1990s the Baghdad regime had produced more than 1 million lb of mustard gas, 330,000 lb of nerve agents such as sarin and 8,800 lb of VX nerve gas.

Unscom initially concentrated on Scud missiles and chemical weapons, and after some superficial checks was ready in 1994 to declare Iraq free of biological weapons. But that was before another team discovered a huge discrepancy between the amount of biological growth media ordered and the amount reportedly destroyed. The media is used to grow bacteria which can be used in biological weapons. It can also be used in hospitals, but the annual consumption of Iraqi hospitals when they functioned properly was less than 200lb; Iraq imported more than 68,000lb in the 1980s, and over 7,000lb is still missing.

The US State Department spokesman, James Rubin made it clear last week this discrepancy will be the main focus of Unscom's next phase of inspections.

Isolated in their own headquarters, and working against the odds to track down what is left of Saddam's weapons programme, the inspectors must feel they are looking for a needle in a haystack. Iraq is a huge country, with tens of thousands of government buildings and hundreds of army and police barracks.

Caroline Cross, Unscom's British spokeswoman, maintains a steely silence when asked how the Iraqis are co-operating now. "We are carrying out our activities. This is between the UN and Iraq, and not for the international media," she says.