A United Nations team of arms inspectors, which has been waiting for two years to return to Iraq, may finally get a green light.
With the Bush administration pressing its case that Iraq is secretly continuing to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry - and US attacks appearing increasingly likely - Iraqi officials have agreed to hold talks with the UN.
An Iraqi delegation, headed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, meets today with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the first time in a year. Mr. Annan intends to press the delegation to readmit the weapons inspectors.
Hans Blix, executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), repeats like a mantra the terms spelled out by a UN Security Council resolution: "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted" access.
"There is no other way for Iraq to have sanctions lifted than to establish confidence that it has no weapons of mass destruction," Dr. Blix says. "And confidence will not come from simply making declarations and opening doors. It requires an active effort by Iraq."
Yet some observers question whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is motivated to establish this confidence - to rehabilitate his image and end the 12 years of sanctions responsible for the deaths of some 5,000 Iraqi children. If he were so concerned, they ask, why has he forgone tens of billions of dollars in international trade just to keep out weapons inspectors?
Some also question the political will of the Security Council. Iraq's key Council allies - Russia, France, and China - seem intent on providing Baghdad with a clean bill of health in hopes of normalizing trade, regardless of Mr. Hussein's cooperation.
"I'm much more worried about what the Council will do, than the inspectors," says Patrick Clawson, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Some will want to sweep it under the carpet and say, 'Do you really want to go to war over two buildings they won't let you into?' They'll push hard to find Iraq mostly cooperative, because to say it is 'noncooperative' will be the casus belli for the US."
Given Iraq's track record, few see cause for optimism.
Sanctions were slapped on Iraq in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait. Weapons inspections followed the 1991 Gulf War and were marred by repeated verbal sparring between the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the host country. Iraq accused the inspectors of serving as Washington's lackeys, and of being infiltrated by US spies.
Hussein also insisted that dozens of "presidential sites" be off limits to inspectors. One such site in central Baghdad reportedly spans a few square miles and contains 500 buildings. One is a palace, and some of the others believed to be military barracks and warehouses.
Even as UNSCOM inspectors scoured the country, Iraq was discovered several times to be producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For example, UNSCOM discovered that Iraq had allegedly tried to disguise its biological-agent production facility at al-Hakam by producing chicken feed and pesticide there. Inspectors oversaw destruction of the facility in 1995.
Eventually, Iraqi intransigence prompted military reprisals in mid-December 1998. UNSCOM inspectors withdrew as US and British airstrikes targeted Iraq's weapons infrastructure. A year later, in an effort to inspire Iraqi compliance, the Security Council replaced UNSCOM with UNMOVIC. Under Blix, a former Swedish foreign minister and longtime director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, no UNMOVIC inspector has entered Iraq.
The new unit would differ from UNSCOM in several ways. During the UNSCOM era, to have sanctions lifted, Iraq was required to dismantle its WMDs. Today, "cooperation" with inspectors may be enough to win Iraq a "suspension" of sanctions.
In contrast to UNSCOM, the faces of UNMOVIC are noticeably different. UNSCOM was usually staffed by inspectors from 12 to 15 primarily Western countries, none of whom were UN employees. The 230 UNMOVIC inspectors today span some 40 nationalities; all are contracted by the world body.
UNMOVIC is not funded by individual governments, as UNSCOM was. The US provided 20 percent of the UNSCOM budget, but UNMOVIC is underwritten by 0.8 percent of an oil-for-food program that allows Iraq limited oil sales in exchange for foodstuff.
Blix says he was lured out of retirement to take his post as head of the inspections team. But two years later, there's no end in sight. "Of course, we'd like to get the job done and the results we want," Blix says. "I like New York, but I'd like to go home."
Clawson says Blix may be disappointed. "I'm skeptical that you'd be able to design and implement an inspection program in such a way as to have a high degree of confidence that [Hussein] no longer has a weapons-of-mass-destruction program."