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Inexperience marks team of inspectors

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix and an advance team arrive in Baghdad Monday.

By Michael J. JordanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2002


As the first UN inspectors land in Baghdad and resume work halted in 1998, they will have newer technology and a no-holds-barred mandate. But they will be lacking in one crucial area: experience.

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Seventy-five percent of the roughly 270 UN inspectors from 48 countries will be visiting Iraq for the first time.

"It can be very disorienting to be in Iraq, and almost everything we saw was ambiguous," says Jonathan Tucker, a former UN bioweapons inspector. An inspector "may go into a facility and feel something is not quite right.... There can be very subtle clues of illicit weapons production. It's a very challenging task, especially if Iraq plans to conceal things."

UNMOVIC won't have much time to get its bearings: the agency has 60 days in which to file its first report to the UN Security Council.

"Clearly, there will be a steep learning curve," admits Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

And with the international community scrutinizing the inspectors' every move, with Iraq expected to obstruct and deceive, and with the prospect of war hanging on their decisions, UNMOVIC's relative inexperience may lead them to be more cautious than aggressive, says Tim McCarthy, a former UN inspector who participated in 15 inspections in Iraq from 1994 to 1998.

Meanwhile, the US is reportedly pushing hard for inspectors to test Iraqi intentions right away. Washington is said to have compiled a list of sites where illicit material is most likely to be found. Iraq - which must give the UN a full inventory of weapons of mass destruction by Dec. 8 - denies it has any. It will fall to the inspectors to disprove Iraqi claims. That is likely to take time.

"I'd say it wasn't until I'd been there five, six times that I really began to absorb the scope of their weapons programs, understand the people and get used to the pace," says Mr. McCarthy, an analyst with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey (California) Institute of International Studies.

Even the best experts have to learn how to be an inspector, says McCarthy. "You're used to doing things a certain way, with a certain analytical bias," he says. "There's a temptation to say to oneself: 'They can't possibly build X, because that's such a bad piece of equipment.' Some things may seem bizarre or illogical to you, but you need to take a step beyond that: Is it logical within the Iraqi system? Experience is important to being a good inspector, but having a nimble and creative mind is just as important."

The reason for the relative inexperience: This UN inspection program is not the same one that pulled out in 1998. When UN inspectors last set foot in Iraq, some saw a need to revamp an operation viewed as too Western, too beholden to their respective governments (which paid their salaries), and too swayed by the United States.

UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors were on loan from their governments - primarily American, Russian, and Western European - the countries most familiar with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Yet, critics accused Washington of angling for "regime change" and infiltrating UN inspection teams with spies, thus undermining the inspectors' credibility.

All along, Saddam Hussein subverted inspections, playing a notorious game of cat and mouse to conceal his arsenal. UN inspectors were eventually withdrawn in December 1998, four days before joint US-British airstrikes on Iraq.

One year later, in a bid to resuscitate inspections, the Security Council passed Resolution 1284, which replaced UNSCOM with UNMOVIC. Resolution 1284 states that "suitably qualified and experienced personnel" be "drawn from the broadest possible geographical base."