Richard Butler, chief of Unscom, the UN Special Commission responsible for rooting out all Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, described the intervention by Iraqi officials as "very serious". The Clinton administration appeared to be reacting cautiously to the incident, however.
After suspending co-operation with Unscom at the end of October, Iraq reversed its stance on 14 November just as the US and Britain were on the brink of launching military action. A bombing campaign was called off when Iraq promised to grant UN inspectors unfettered access to all sites.
A strike against Iraq could still be ordered at any moment. Fresh troops and hardware, rapidly assembled by Washington and London in the run-up to the November confrontation, still remain in the Gulf. An official confirmed yesterday that the US remains "poised to act".
Mr Butler is due to report to the UN Security Council next week on the extent of Iraq's compliance with its latest promises and all relevant UN resolutions. Sanctions imposed on Iraq when it launched its 1990 invasion of Kuwait will only be lifted once Unscom has certified that the country is free of all armaments of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Mr Butler served notice on Monday that his inspectors were starting a new phase of their work and would be proceeding immediately with surprise inspections of sites.
According to the official Iraqi news agency, members of a UN inspection team attempted to enter the Ba'ath Party headquarters yesterday morning. Officials in the building asked to see a list of the items the inspectors expected to find. When they said they had no such list, the inspectors withdrew.
The news agency was quoting Hussam Mohammad Amin, who is in charge of liaison between the inspectors and the Iraqi government. Mr Amin accused Unscom of deliberately attempting to stir up a new confrontation. "It appears that such provocative and astonishing methods practised by elements of the Special Commission's inspection teams clearly aim to manufacture crises and problems," he said.
There were signs of sympathy with the Iraqi position from within the circle of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General. Some daylight has been visible for months between the positions of Britain and the US on the handling of Iraq, and the Secretary-General, who favours a swift end to UN sanctions against Iraq.
Speaking to a meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council in Abu Dhabi, Lakhdar Brahimi, a senior aide to the Secretary-General, said "unannounced inspections have been going well". He then added that an "unannounced inspection at Ba'ath Party headquarters was a bit provocative".
Mr Butler, however, said yesterday that he was clear that Iraq had illegally stood in the way of the inspectors. "Iraq claims that this [inspection] was illegitimate are simply unacceptable, against the law - that is, the resolutions of the Security Council," he said. "So we were blocked and that is very serious."
In Washington, David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said: "We expect full co-operation by the Iraqis. If Unscom cannot do its job effectively, we remain poised to act."
Iraq has balked at requests from Unscom for several sets of documents that inspectors believe could shed light on its weapons programmes dating back to the Iran-Iraq war. While the dispute over documents sounded alarm bells in Washington and London, that alone did not seem grave enough to re-ignite enthusiasm for a military attack.
Mr Butler's assessment on the progress of his inspections, which he will give to the Security Council next week, should determine where policy on Iraq goes next. The council has agreed to launch a complete review of the sanctions against Iraq and its compliance with UN resolutions as soon as Mr Butler deems the inspections are on track again.
Barring a declaration from Mr Butler that Iraq is blatantly impeding his work, there seems little enthusiasm even in Washington for military strikes as Christmas approaches and as Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.Reuse content