TV link keeps watchful eye on Saddam's bomb factories

  • @dusborne
The Gulf war was the first war to happen live on television; five years later the UN is taking its surveillance of Iraq into the global television age.

About 125 cameras have been installed throughout Iraq to monitor armaments activities. They will be switched through to a control room 7,000 miles away in New York. The Big Brother operation will be managed by Unscom, the UN commission that was set up in April 1991 in the aftermath of the war. Headed by Swedish diplomat, Rolf Ekeus, its task has been three-fold: to identify Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, to dismantle them and to ensure that Baghdad does not develop new ones. It is in this last mission that the banks of flickering screens in New York will be vital.

With its extraordinary powers to intrude on the Iraqi military, Unscom is what Baghdad has suffered for its invasion of Kuwait five years ago today. It is also linked with the maintenance of the harsh sanctions imposed on the country after the war.

Only when Mr Ekeus is convinced that all banned weapons are gone will the UN consider easing the sanctions. After more than four years of playing cat and mouse with the Iraqis, Mr Ekeus may at last be approaching the end of the "discovery and destruction" phase. On Thursday, he departs for Baghdad to receive a formal report from the government on its past biological weapons programme and what happened to it. If he is satisfied, he may declare to the Security Council that Iraq's mass destruction capability is ended. In theory, at that point, the lifting the sanctions on Saddam Hussein could begin.

Mr Ekeus's team is relatively small, but must count as one of the most productive UN agencies. In New York, he has about 50 officials. There are about 20 people at a field base in Bahrain and anything up to 100 inspectors at one time in Iraq. The mission has been to go into Iraq, find its banned weapons installations and blow them up. One building was so large and so reinforced, it would have taken 400 tons of TNT to do the job, so they entombed it in concrete instead.

Iraq has done everything to frustrate the commission. In the beginning, Baghdad denied that it had either a nuclear or a biological weapons programme. Its nuclear facilities were discovered early on and mostly disabled in 1991. On long-range missiles, Scuds or their derivatives, and chemical weapons Baghdad grossly under-reported the numbers of weapons and related materials that they had.

It took Baghdad until last month to concede that it had had a long-running germ warfare programme in the late 1980s and had produced large quantities of deadly agents, including anthrax. So far, however, it denies ever having progressed into weapons production, a claim that many find unconvincing.

Even so, Mr Ekeus has told the Security Council that he believes Iraq to be rid of weapons in the nuclear, ballistic and chemicals categories. Even Britain and the United States, the two council members that have been most forthright on the need to complete the mission utterly before easing sanctions, admit that the endgame may be approaching. "No-one can deny that we are getting there, but exactly when it will all be over is anyone's guess," one senior diplomat conceded this week.

However, in its monitoring role, Unscom is likely to be in business for a very long time.

Mr Ekeus could never be 100 per cent sure that covert weapons research or even manufacturing may not be resuming in another corner of the country.

Even the cameras guarantee nothing: it is amazing what can be done with a Hollywood-style backdrop.