Inexperience marks team of inspectors

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

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.

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."

And while the geographic distribution within UNMOVIC is indeed broad, it's not broad enough for some.

The Arab League last week called for greater inclusion of Arab inspectors. Yahya Mahmassani, the Arab League's permanent observer to the UN, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week, calling for "fairness."

"For the moment, there are only a couple of Arab inspectors; I think you can count one, two, or three," says Mr. Mahmassani. "We believe it's only fair that since Arab states are a large proportion of the UN, and where these inspectors are going is to an Arab region ... that qualified, competent Arab inspectors be included. If inspections were taking place somewhere in South America, the Latin Americans would probably be asking for the same thing."

But others note that the International Atomic Energy Agency's director general is Mohamed El Baradei, an Egyptian. He arrives in Baghdad Monday to take charge of inspecting suspected nuclear weapons sites.

The country of origin may be a factor in other ways. Making all inspectors salaried UN employees is supposed to make them less vulnerable to pressure from their home countries. But critics wonder if that will work.

"In my experience, even though we were all nominally on loan and supposed to be representing the interests of the UN, not our national interests, the reality was that the inspectors tended to represent the general approach of our respective counties," says Mr. Tucker, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace who served a stint with the UN in Iraq in 1995. "The French and Russians tended to give the Iraqis the benefit of the doubt, whereas the Americans and British were much more skeptical of Iraqi statements and behavior."

UNMOVIC officials would not confirm the nationalities of its inspectors. Some media reports say that 27 are from the US, 13 from Britain, 22 from Russia, and 25 from France.

Before landing in Iraq, says Mr. Buchanan, UNMOVIC inspectors, unlike their UNSCOM forerunners, will have undergone at least five weeks of training, that included the rules guiding their mission, the history of Iraq's weapons programs, and the culture of Iraq.

Inspectors include experts in such areas as molecular pharmacology, microbiology, and missile design. But there will also be lab technicians, engineers, and logistical support. "It's not just nukes, chemicals, bugs, and missiles," says Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "You don't need to be an expert in biological weapons to be useful. As long as they're trained, competent, and have the necessary experience, then it doesn't matter if inspectors are American or Armenian. As long as they get the job done."

UNMOVIC inspectors do have some important advantages that may compensate for the lack of experience. For example, they will have better equipment than their predecessors, allowing them to test suspected sites for biological and chemical toxins on the spot.

And this time, no presidential palaces or personnel are off limits to inspectors. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde on Friday, chief UN inspector Hans Blix said that even a delay of 30 minutes in granting inspectors access to a site would be considered a serious violation.

The Bush administration says it's unconcerned by the composition and experience of inspection teams. "We're confident, based on what we've heard from Dr. Blix, that they have the tools to do their job; they just need the access to do it and cooperation of Iraqis," says a Bush administration official.

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