From Antarctica to Iraq: Blix starts weapons probe job

On Wednesday, new inspections chief likens his task to a political minefield.

Wanted: Chief UN arms inspector willing to put up with bomb threats, extreme office politics, and immense unpopularity in Iraq.

The United Nations Security Council finally found a man qualified for the job. It plucked a retired Swedish diplomat from vacation in Antarctica for the job.

Hans Blix, a former foreign minister of Sweden and the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997, took up his duties Wednesday as chief of the new Iraq weapons inspection team.

If the inspection teams certify that Iraq is no longer possesses or is developing weapons of mass destruction, the sanctions that were placed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait can be lifted.

Surrounded by barren walls, sparse furnishing, and one lonely plant, Blix - known for his ability to build consensus and motivate his staff - is selecting a team under a 45-day deadline.

Though he promises thorough investigations of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, he adds: "In any inspection you cannot come to a 100-percent clarification. There will always be a residue of uncertainty."

Though he holds the key to suspending sanctions, he says, the suffering in Iraq won't alter his work program. But he says neither the suffering of the Iraqi people under the embargo, nor the lobbying of UN Security Council members like France, Russia, and China - with their financial and economic interests - will affect his work.

"I'm not playing a political role. I see our task as being a technical one within a political minefield," says Blix.

That may be wishful thinking. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (unmovic) was conceived as a more politicized body than its predecessor, unscom.

Unmovic is obligated, under the December resolution that created it, to periodically consult with a "college of commissioners."

Some disarmament analysts fear that Iraq will try to pack the college with people sympathetic toward Baghdad.

But Blix insists that he will listen to their advice, but in the end make his own judgment.

Former colleagues at the IAEA say that is his standard style. "He would listen to every argument. There was no hierarchy [at IAEA meetings]," says Bruno Pellaud, the former deputy director-general for safeguards at the atomic agency.

"The youngest lawyer present had the same voice that I had. He would listen to everybody, turn every argument around, and at the end of the meeting he would pull things together and say: 'Isn't this what we should do?' And it would be decided. He has that ability which was very motivating for everybody around him."

He will have to do a lot of listening and consensus-building while devising unmovic's organizational structure and staff. US and British officials think that the new inspection unit should draw on its predecessor, which ended bitterly, with inspectors pulling out and US and British forces bombing in Iraq in December 1998.

"If we thought it was going to be much different from unscom we wouldn't have voted for it," says one State Department official.

Meanwhile, Russia wants the new team to start with a clean slate, saying that it should not be tainted by unscom. And French Ambassador Alain Dejammet says that its staff should be "mostly different."

Blix says he will undoubtedly have unscom members on his team since it's unpragmatic to start from scratch, and he needs some of its "institutional memory."

Rolf Ekeus, the first head of the UN's inspection team, says that Blix may not have much leeway in staffing decisions, since most of the weapons experts, especially in the biological and chemical fields, have worked for unscom.

But if unmovic draws a staff largely from its predecessor, which Baghdad opposes vehemently, Iraq will have another excuse for disallowing inspections. Blix counters that the new team is more than a change in name.

His organization's staff largely will be on UN contracts, rather than being on loan from governments as in the past. In this way, their allegiance would be to the organization rather than their home governments, he says, alluding to the allegations that unscom was used by Washington to spy on Baghdad.

But he warns: "I don't think that any organization can completely guarantee that you will not be infiltrated.... Even the CIA has been infiltrated in the past.... If I discover a staff is not loyal, I will fire him."

Meanwhile, Mr. Ekeus says that "Unscom was a very excellent institution ... many weapons were found and destroyed. Production capabilities were eliminated. You can't invent a new way to inspect. It's the same way even if you have a new payroll system." Blix says he has publicly invited Iraqi officials to talk with him.

However, Baghdad, which in the past objected to American and British citizens being on unscom, would not be able to determine the composition of his inspection teams.

Baghdad still refuses to deal with Blix and the Security Council resolution. But Blix says he is working on the assumption that Iraq will eventually cooperate with him, given the incentives of suspended sanctions.

Toward the end of his tenure at the atomic agency, Blix had fairly good relations with Baghdad. After all, he did say that most of the important questions on Iraq's nuclear program had been answered, and the IAEA should therefore concentrate on ongoing monitoring, rather than the kind of inspections that unscom was still pursuing in the fields of biological and chemical weapons.

That statement brought him severe criticism from some disarmament experts. The agency still had not determined the sources of outside assistance to Iraq, says Steven Dolley at the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute.

Moreover, some weapons components known to exist were never found, and their destruction was never verified, Mr. Dolley charges. "Unscom tended to be more aggressive, and the IAEA tended to be more collegial. We think that extended into how the inspections were handled."

Washington, which in the past thought Blix was too soft on Iraq, now defends him, agreeing with him that most questions concerning Iraq's nuclear programs have been answered. "We think he did an excellent job as IAEA director, and we think he'll do an excellent job here as well," says Joseph Cunningham, the deputy US representative to the UN.

Blix says that unmovic will do surprise inspections. But he adds this would be part of a "reinforced ongoing monitoring system" as stressed in the resolution.

Given a split council and a defiant Iraqi regime, Mr. Blix may be organizing a team that may never finish or even start its work, some diplomats here concede. "There is a very small chance that unmovic will find anything. Saddam has shown that he will not give up his program even if it costs him billions of dollars," says Gary Milhollin at the Wisconsin Project in Washington. "Why should he become honest with the inspectors now? There's no reason to think that he will."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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