Rolf Ekeus, the UN's chief weapons inspector, was dispatched to Iraq by the UN Security Council to try to resolve the latest crisis, which has been termed by officials in New York the most serious since the Gulf War. "This is of a higher order than any we have had before," a diplomat said yesterday.
The confrontation arose last week when Iraq barred UN inspection teams from entering several sites in and around Baghdad suspected of holding material linked to a weapons programme. A UN trade embargo against Iraq instituted after the Gulf war can only be lifted once Iraq has proved it has abandoned all its programmes to build weapons of mass destruction.
There have been several skirmishes over recent years when Iraq has tried to impede the work of the inspectors. Most have been fairly quickly resolved, however. "The inspectors were simply told last week that the sites were off limits and that is the first time that has happened," the diplomat confirmed.
The Security Council reprimanded Baghdad twice last week and has demanded that full access for the inspectors be restored. Iraq meanwhile is claiming that entry to the sites in question would constitute a violation of national sovereignty.
Mr Ekeus, who has the task of judging when, if ever, Iraq is finally free of weapons programmes, was met yesterday by a blitz of hostile comment in the Iraqi media. Particularly violent was a so-called "open letter to Ekeus", in the daily newspaper, Al-Jumhuriyah.
"Mr Ekeus, you know that we know that you are a liar and that is why you dare not look Iraqi negotiators in the eye," it declared. "You want to enter sensitive sites that are symbols of our national sovereignty, which means that you are deliberately trying to humiliate the people of Iraq with the impertinence only found in a murdering cowboy". Mr Ekeus is not alone in suffering such arrows. Over recent months the Iraqi media has been the vehicle for repeated attacks against Britain and the United States, perceived in Baghdad as determined enemies of Iraq and the prime defenders of the post-Gulf war sanctions against it. In one such outburst recently, the US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, was dismissed as "impudent" and a "blabbermouth".
Mr Ekeus is expected to remain in Iraq for talks with government officials at least until Saturday. He will then return to New York to brief the Security Council. Diplomats concede that no strategy has yet been agreed for action against Iraq, if the Ekeus mission is a failure.
But the council has been united in countering the latest Iraqi manoeuvres. Both a statement and a resolution condemning Baghdad last week where passed unanimously. In previous discussions about Iraqi sanctions, several council members, including China, Russia and even France, have displayed a greater sympathy towards Baghdad than Britain or the US.