The chief United Nations arms inspector, Rolf Ekeus, arrived in Baghdad yesterday on what may be a critical visit in his search to discover the truth about Iraq's concealed biological weapons programme.
It is also crucial to the fortunes of the people of Iraq, as Mr Ekeus is to report by 11 October on the arms-control programme before the UN Security Council reviews the punitive trade sanctions imposed after the Gulf war.
A UN official reported this week that food shortages were causing "irreparable damage" to Iraqi children, many of them born after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait five years ago.
Dieter Hannusch, Chief Emergency Officer of the World Food Programme, said one-fifth of Iraq's 20 million population were at risk from malnutrition. "We are at the point of no return in Iraq," he said. "The social fabric of the nation is disintegrating." Even the urban middle classes were impoverished after selling their assets to survive, he reported.
Mr Hannusch said 29 per cent of children under five were malnourished, a figure comparable to Mali, while the infant mortality rate was 92 per thousand live births, similar to Sudan. The evidence of the World Food Programme will bolster arguments by Turkey and Jordan that sanctions should be lifted. Britain and the US point out that President Saddam has refused to take advantage of a UN resolution permitting limited oil sales to raise funds for humanitarian needs.
Mr Ekeus's visit is likely to yield evidence that will convince members of the Security Council that the regime continued to conceal research on lethal biological weapons even after its nuclear and chemical-warfare programmes were dismantled.
The new evidence came from President Saddam's son-in-law, the former supremo of Iraq's military industries, Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel Hassan, who defected to Jordan in August. He is known to have operated a clandestine programme to which European companies sold chemicals.
Iraq is believed to have conducted research into the belligerent use of cholera, typhoid and anthrax and to have investigated rare biotoxins and African viruses.
Iraq never used its unconventional weapons in the Gulf war. The former US Secretary of State, James Baker, revealed in his memoirs this month that the US threatened Baghdad with severe reprisals if it did so, a threat which Iraq took to mean that nuclear weapons would be used in retaliation.
British and American officials think the biological-warfare revelations will silence calls by Russia and France for sanctions to be lifted. Major oil companies from both countries have initialled lucrative development contracts with Iraq, which come into force when sanctions end.
In addition to Anglo-American determination to keep the clamp on President Saddam, there are commercial pressures in the world oil market to keep sanctions in place. Oil industry analysts believe Saudi Arabia and other producers want to keep Iraqi production off the market, because of weakening crude prices and the fact that Opec is in disarray over its collective marketing policy.