Local Heroes: Rolf Ekeus; Quiet envoy's struggle with Iraq's worst weapons

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The Independent Online
In Baghdad, he is vilified as a "killer cowboy" and a baby murderer. In their cheekier moments, colleagues compare him to the Swedish chef from The Muppets, a bumbler who speaks in Swinglish. Alternatively, he is the one senior United Nations official with a self-evidently important - and potentially deadly - job to do.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Rolf Ekeus, a quiet-spoken former Swedish diplomat, has been charged with flushing every last weapon of mass destruction out of Iraq. The task even now remains unfinished.

As chairman since 1991 of Unscom, the UN Special Commission on disarming Iraq, he has the final say in determining when Iraq has finally rid itself of its most heinous weapons - its long-range ballistic missiles and its nuclear, biological and chemical warheads. Only then, in theory at least, will the Security Council lift the trade sanctions that have been crippling Iraq since the conflict erupted.

If most departments in the UN are castles of words and unread documents, Unscom, with its heavy reliance on US intelligence, is genuinely hectic. No comparable attempt to disarm a country has been made since the Allies conquered Germany.

To keep the process on course and credible, Mr Ekeus has had to engage in some unusual manouevring. Most important has been preserving the unity of the Security Council. Often that has meant painting one picture for the Americans, for instance, who remain hawkish on maintaining sanctions, and another one for the French, the council member most disposed to giving Iraq leeway. "The most incredible thing is that he always gets away with it," one colleague noted.

Trickiest of all have been his dealings with Saddam Hussein's regime. While in the early days Baghdad appeared to trust Mr Ekeus, in recent times the relationship has deteriorated. As the solidity of the US-led alliance against Iraq visibly deteriorates, demonstrated by Washington's go-it-alone attacks in southern Iraq in September, the job of convincing Iraq it must co-operate with the UN becomes more difficult.

And so the rhetoric thrown at Mr Ekeus by Iraq's editorial writers has grown harsher. "Mr Ekeus, we know you are a liar," spat the government newspaper, al-Jumhouriya recently. The Swede, it said, was a "killer cowboy, deliberately trying to insult the Iraqi people". He is accused of being the puppet of Washington. In fact, keeping Unscom out of Washington's grasp is hailed by some as Mr Ekeus's principle achievement.

The recipient of many death threats, he will now only travel to Iraq with UN bodyguards. Friends say Mr Ekeus, who is married with children, is genuinely disturbed by the threats, even if they question the wisdom of assigning him guards. "If they are going to kill him, then they are going to kill him," one noted. "They hardly need to do it in Baghdad."

So endless has been the cat-and-mouse game with Iraq over its weapons, it is hard to imagine Unscom will ever conclude its business. If it does, it will either be because Iraq, possibly under fresh rulers, finally comes clean with the UN or because the resolve of the international community to keep punishing it is allowed to crumble.

Mr Ekeus, widely admired and liked in New York's diplomatic circles, may by then have moved on. Last month, Sweden beat Australia in an election to claim one of the Security Council seats for two years. Mr Ekeus's reward could be his appointment to the Swedish ambassadorship to the UN, and to the occupancy of that coveted seat.

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