UN team flies in on three-week deadline

Andrew Buncombe,Jo Dillon
Sunday 17 November 2002 01:00

Hans Blix, leader of the United Nations weapons inspectors, arrives in Baghdad tomorrow knowing the actions of his team will decide whether the West goes to war with Iraq. Yesterday the 74-year-old Swede warned Saddam Hussein's regime against trying to deny inspectors access to any sites.

"A denial of access, or delayed access, or trying to put something off grounds for us – this would be very serious," Mr Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, said in Paris, on his way to Cyprus and then Baghdad.

The UN man's mission is one in which the stakes could not be higher. Many feel Washington is looking for the slightest excuse to launch a military strike against President Saddam, while at the same time Iraq is in no mood to be co-operative.

Tony Blair will this week meet world leaders at the Nato summit in Prague, notionally to discuss the expansion of the alliance. Downing Street admits that the summit – the first for three years – will be a timely opportunity for leaders to hold talks about planned military action against Iraq.

The Prime Minister will be joined at the summit on Thursday and Friday by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary. It is likely to be the last international gathering of its kind before the 8 December deadline by which Iraq must respond to the UN resolution – or face military strikes.

It will be a crucial meeting for Mr Blair, who with US President George Bush, is adamant that the threat of war must remain an option of last resort. The Prime Minister will use the meeting to help shore up international alliances.

The UN inspection team, made up of scientists from 45 countries and using intelligence provided by the US and Britain, is due to start work on 27 November. Iraq will then have until 8 December to provide a full audit of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes.

President Saddam said in Baghdad yesterday that the inspectors' visit would prove Iraq was not harbouring weapons of mass destruction. In a letter addressed to the Iraqi parliament, he said he had decided to allow the return of inspectors because "your enemy, the Zionist coalition with the American administration, and all those devils that follow them, have chosen this time, after sabre rattling... to fight our heroic and struggling people." Earlier the parliament had voted unanimously against allowing it.

The importance of the inspection is hard to overestimate. The Security Council resolution that demanded their return warns of "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to comply. The US has warned that it will consider any delay or dishonesty on the part of Iraq a trigger for military action.

But Mr Blix's task is far from simple. He has warned that it took him three years fully to evaluate South Africa's nuclear programme – and that was with the cooperation of the government, which wanted to terminate its weapons capability. He added to the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility yesterday when he said he could not guarantee that his inspection teams had not been infiltrated by Western spies.

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