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UN inspectors braced for new row with Iraq

BAGHDAD - A UN team arrived in Baghdad yesterday to search for arms on a mission that could lead to an explosive new row with the United Nations and United States. Iraq has declared its ministries off limits to the UN inspectors and says it is undaunted by the prospect of confrontation with the Security Council.

President George Bush expressed confidence that Iraq would be forced to comply with Gulf war ceasefire terms. 'They are going to comply with these resolutions. I'm absolutely certain of that,' he told a news conference yesterday. On Thursday he said the US would guarantee that the inspectors can visit suspected weapons sites.

Nikita Smidovich, the Russian head of the 22-member team, declined to tell reporters what sites the inspectors planned to visit or whether they included government ministries. 'I'm not commenting on the details of our operations,' he said. 'I think we are looking for a full implementation of the Iraqi government pledge to fully implement (UN Security Council) resolution 687.'

Mr Smidovich said there were several Americans on his team and he expected his mission to take a week to 10 days in Iraq. Asked whether he expected the same sort of tension that marked the visit of the last UN team, Mr Smidovich said: 'We always come with the hope there will be no tension and we are doing our job.' His is the first UN team to enter Iraq since UN inspectors searched the Agriculture Ministry last week after the most serious confrontation yet between the UN and Baghdad over Gulf war ceasefire terms.

Mr Smidovich said he would follow the normal operating procedure, meeting Iraqi officials yesterday evening and then starting inspections this morning.

Iraq said on Thursday it was barring the inspectors from government ministries to protect Iraqi sovereignty. 'We reject categorically visits to headquarters of ministries because the aim . . . is to hurt Iraq's sovereignty and independence,' Hamed Youssef Hammadi, the Information Minister, told a news conference.

Iraq's official newspapers yesterday said Baghdad was stronger and more confident than ever. 'Iraq, under the leadership of President Saddam Hussein, was able to confront and resist threats though they were very big,' al- Thawra, the paper of the ruling Baath Party, said in a commentary looking ahead to the anniversary of the end of war with Iran.

'Despite the unjust (UN) embargo and all attempts against Iraq by its enemies, Iraq has emerged successful from this hard test and stronger and more confident.'

Baghdad was closed down yesterday for the Muslim day of rest but important ministries were guarded, as usual, by troops armed with AK-47 assault rifles. At the first meeting yesterday, Iraqi officials were expected formally to tell Mr Smidovich that they have put all government ministries off limits to the inspectors. Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq's weapons, said after the Agriculture Ministry crisis that Iraq had promised a new chapter of co- operation.

He said UN inspectors would respect Iraqi sensitivities and would not try to enter buildings gratuitously. But he also told Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister: 'There will be very swift reaction if there is any tendency to block us this time.'

The United States has some 40 warships near Iraq. Two are aircraft carriers with more than 150 planes between them.