Inspector Blix retires to look for mushrooms instead of weapons

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The Independent Online

Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector who was pulled out of retirement and thrust into the limelight to search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, bows out again today.

The 75-year-old diplomat says he will now go hunting for mushrooms and blueberries. But he is not leaving without firing off a few missiles of his own. In the days leading up to his retirement, the mild-mannered, rumpled-looking Mr Blix settled a few scores with his political masters, who ignored his pleas to give the teams of inspectors more time before going to war. He acknowledged in a recent interview with The Guardian that he had his detractors in Washington, saying that he was smeared by "bastards who spread things around, of course, who planted nasty things in the media".

Elsewhere, he accused the administration of George Bush, the United States President, of pressuring his inspectors to produce evidence that could trigger the war, and of failing to provide intelligence to back up its claims of Iraqi cheating.

Mr Blix's relations with Washington had never been easy. After his appointment as chief UN weapons inspector in January 2000, the Pentagon asked the CIA to scrutinise his past, fearingthat he would be too lenient with the Iraqi leadership.

In his previous post as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr Blix was in charge when the Iraq nuclear dossier was virtually closed, to the horror of the hawks in Washington. The inspectors said that there was no evidence Iraq continued to have a clandestine nuclear programme.

That position remains valid under Mr Blix's successor. In the fraught run-up to the Iraq war, Mr Blix proved that under pressure he was able to stand up to the Iraqis and the Americans at the same time.

He resisted suggestions to declare Iraq in "material breach" of its international commitments under disarmament resolutions,saying such a political decision - amounting to a declaration of war - rested with the UN Security Council. It never happened.

"I agree that the Iraqis are very clever. They have had many years to learn how to hide things," he told ABC television. "But ... most of [the] intelligence has not been solid."

Mr Blix, a former Swedish foreign minister, is to be replaced by the Greek nuclear expert Demetrius Perricos as interim chief weapons inspector, who will serve in the post until the Security Council decides what to do with the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission.

But two months after the official end of the war on Iraq, as the debate rolls on in Washington and London, Mr Blix must feel vindicated. He has won praise for his "professional" approach from the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. That is another UN employee who knows something about political pressure.