French fight shy of an 'October surprise'

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THREE WEEKS before the US presidential election, the international community said the United Nations should not flinch from sending its largest mission yet of weapons inspectors into Iraq, despite concerns that President George Bush might use the opportunity to escalate tension with Saddam Hussein for political reasons.

President Saddam added to the tension by accusing the UN inspectors of being 'stray dogs feeding on the flesh of Iraq'. None the less, the Security Council last night backed the decision to mount the inspection at this sensitive time. The inspectors began flying equipment into Iraq yesterday and the full team is expected to arrive from Bahrain today.

France earlier angered the US by suggesting that the mission be put off until after the US elections and, failing that, that it be led by Rolf Ekeus, the head of the UN Special Commission, who is highly regarded by both Washington and Baghdad. Paris was evidently concerned that President Bush might exploit any interference by Iraq with the 49-member mission and trigger a much-heralded 'October surprise' possibly involving resumed military action in Iraq.

A quick, clean military campaign - without any US casualties - is just what President Bush needs to regain public support for his candidacy, some diplomats speculate.

France's UN representative, Jean-Bernard Merimee, asked that the mission be abandoned at the last minute, apparently fearing just such a scenario.

However, when challenged about this yesterday, Mr Merimee vehemently denied that he had ever made such a suggestion. Mr Merimee's request was firmly rebuffed by Mr Ekeus, who said yesterday that he 'saw no reason' to call off the mission at this stage.

Iraq is also nervous about the prospects of a mishap as the mission fans out to look for hidden Scud missiles and evidence that Iraq is still trying to conceal a programme aimed at arming the missiles with nuclear warheads.

Mr Ekeus also rejected a request by the Iraqi representative at the UN, Nizar Hamdoon, that he (Mr Ekeus) accompany the mission into Iraq. 'It is better that I stay close to the Security Council,' he said yesterday, adding that he had 'full confidence' in the leader of the team, a Russian expert, Nikita Smidovitch.

The inspectors include two British nuclear experts as well as arms inspectors from numerous other countries, including the US. Their primary mission is to reiterate to Iraq that it cannot get away with lying about the extent of its weapons programme.

According to the CIA, Iraq has hidden some 200 Scud missiles, obtained indirectly from North Korea. The UN, using separate intelligence and analysis, believes Iraq is hiding at least 100 Scud missiles and that it has still not declared the full extent of its programme to equip these missiles with nuclear warheads.

In July, Iraq resisted when another UN team attempted to inspect a ministry building, triggering an 18-day vigil by the UN inspectors, during which Iraqi demonstrators attacked them. The crisis ended when the UN took its US inspectors off the job. It was heavily criticised in the US, where it was seen as a cave-in to President Saddam, and was interpreted as a victory over President Mr Bush's Gulf policy of toppling the Iraqi dictator.