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Arab prepares to lead Iraq inspectors

As UN inspections set up in Iraq, director Mohamed El Baradei may not share Bush's 'zero tolerance' view.

By Michael J. JordanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2002


Mohamed El Baradei is growing frustrated with the topic of his nationality.

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Mr. El Baradei, director general of the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency, spent the past week dashing from New York to Washington to IAEA headquarters in Vienna and then to Cyprus - all before joining the advance team of UN weapons inspectors that arrived Monday in Baghdad.

A veteran of 18 years with the IAEA, he's known for his technical expertise. But while the media are interested in how he'll apply that skill in his hunt for weapons of mass destruction, they're also throwing the spotlight on his status as an Egyptian - and the most prominent Arab within an inspections regime widely viewed in the Arab world as a pretext for US-led war against Arab brethren.

El Baradei himself shies away from that focus. "He's tired of answering questions about it," says Tracy Brown, the IAEA's public-information officer in New York. "The issue should be competence, not nationality. They're international civil servants, and their loyalty should be to the institutions for which they work, not their national governments."

El Baradei will lead the IAEA team of 20 inspectors that is responsible for nuclear inspections. The roughly 270 inspectors of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), led by Hans Blix, will handle chemical and biological weaponry and ballistic missiles.

When the IAEA left Iraq in late 1998, it declared Baghdad's nuclear program effectively dismantled. "We believed we had taken away their nuclear capacity," says IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky. The team was withdrawn in advance of US and British airstrikes in response to alleged Iraqi intransigence related to other inspections.

Mr. Gwozdecky says the task now is to make up the ground lost over the past four years. "That's the challenge: to find out what's happened [since then]. We don't go in with the mentality that we left them with nothing; we are suspicious on principle, because that mentality makes inspections most effective."

President Bush has declared his support for IAEA. But the administration's hawks will likely remain suspicious of the 45-year-old agency, recalling the fact that it was the IAEA, then run by current UNMOVIC chief Mr. Blix, that failed to detect Iraq's secret nuclear program in early 1990, months prior to the Gulf War.

After the blow to its prestige, the IAEA revamped policies that permitted inspections only of a country's "declared" facilities. The organization, an autonomous member of the UN family that has conducted nuclear inspections for three decades, is now empowered to inspect facilities beyond what's declared, as well as to test water, air, and soil, and initiate surprise visits. The new UN disarmament resolution means IAEA and UNMOVIC will have in Iraq what is described as the broadest mandate ever, permitting inspections any time, anywhere.