UN weapons inspectors begin talks with Iraqis


IRAQ: UN arms inspectors arrived in Baghdad yesterday to search for weapons of mass destruction, a mission which will decide whether the US goes to war with Iraq.

As chief weapons inspector Dr Hans Blix and his team of about 30 experts flew into Baghdad to resume UN work in the country after a four-year absence, Iraq vowed to defend "every inch" of its land if attacked.

It also attacked Washington as US and British jets again raided Iraqi air defences, rejecting US charges that it had violated a new UN resolution by continually trying to shoot down the warplanes patrolling "no-fly" zones.

Dr Blix, who arrived from Cyprus with Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, went into his first talks at the foreign ministry with Gen Amir al-Saadi, an adviser to President Saddam Hussein. "We have come here for one single reason and that is because the world wants to have assurances that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Dr Blix told reporters on arrival.

"The situation is tense at the moment, but there is a new opportunity and we are here to provide inspection which is credible."

Referring to UN sanctions imposed on Iraq because of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he added: "We hope that opportunity will be well utilised so that we can get out of sanctions." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Iraq's leader to give "prompt and unfettered access" to sites suspected of having nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

"I urge President Saddam Hussein to comply fully for the sake of his people, for the sake of the region and for the sake of the whole world," Mr Annan told a news conference in Sarajevo.

The members of Dr Blix's UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) arrived aboard a privately chartered C-130 aircraft carrying the UN insignia. Dr Blix was greeted by Husam Mohammed Amin, head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, which liaises with UN arms inspectors.

The UN team was expected to go to the UN inspectors' old Baghdad offices at the Canal Hotel before starting work on logistics such as hiring vehicles and setting up laboratories.

Formal inspections are not due to start until November 27th.

Under the UN Security Council resolution adopted on November 8th, the first big test is a December 8th deadline for Iraq to submit a full account of all its banned weapons programmes. By January 27th next year, the inspectors must have given their first report to the UN Security Council.

In Monday's skirmish in the skies over Iraq, US commanders said US and British aircraft retaliated after being threatened as they patrolled a northern "no-fly" zone. Analysts say such clashes could ignite full-scale conflict.

US Defence Secretary Mr Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqi firing at Western warplanes patrolling the "no-fly" zones, set up after the 1991 Gulf War that drove Iraqi invasion forces out of Kuwait, was a violation of the UN resolution. But he stopped short of suggesting the US would refer the issue immediately to the UN Security Council.

Iraq said such statements proved Washington was using the resolution to justify its "aggressive intentions". "This US declaration is an additional expression of American intentions to use [UN\] resolution 1441 as a cover to justify its aggressive actions against Iraq," a foreign ministry spokesman said. - (Reuters)