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.

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

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 The team was withdrawn in advance of US and British airstrikes in response to alleged Iraqi intransigence related to other inspections.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.

Meanwhile, El Baradei is said to be widely respected in Washington. A scholar of international law and former Egyptian diplomat who once taught at New York University, he has been with the IAEA since 1984. The US endorsed his 1997 candidacy for IAEA chief over that of another Egyptian who was Cairo's official choice. El Baradei has since been appointed to a second four-year term.

"He was known as technically competent and a good manager," says David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and a former Canadian ambassador to the UN. "I think he's someone Washington is very comfortable with. He's politically sensitive, but takes an essentially technical approach to his responsibilities."

"We're a technical organization, and we like to rely on facts, not speculation," Ms. Brown says. "That's the kind of person [El Baradei] is: he likes to work with the facts, and his inspectors will go in to find out the truth."

But El Baradei appears likely to have more nuanced views of Iraqi compliance, and not the "zero tolerance" of any "deception, denial, or deceit" that President Bush demanded last week. According to the UN, Iraqi noncompliance may be considered "material breach" - and authorize use of force. "If there is a pattern of lack of cooperation, then we have to report to the Security Council and the Security Council will decide if that is a material breach," El Baradei said last week at a nonproliferation conference in Washington. But if "there is minor omission and this is clearly not intentional," he said, "we are not running to the Security Council to say that it's a material breach."

And despite his objections, El Baradei knows his nationality does in fact matter. The 22-nation Arab League, in accepting the UN's new Iraq resolution last week, called for more Arab inspectors to be included within UNMOVIC. Only a few inspectors are reportedly Arab, though UNMOVIC declined to confirm this. Blix mentioned Monday that only Jordanians had applied to be inspectors; of the 48 nations represented in the UNMOVIC team, the three largest groups are from the United States, France, and Russia.

Gwozdecky noted that of IAEA's 20 inspectors - a figure he said will rise to 30 eventually - four of them, including El Baradei, are Arabs. "We're pretty well represented from a numbers point of view," he says. "I believe that is a confidence-builder for Arabs.... Our inspectors were never accused of being unfair to Iraq."

El Baradei himself has said his presence may lend credibility. "I think [Arabs] will probably listen to me, because I will speak to them in their own language," he told The New York Times recently.

During contentious negotiations over the new resolution, El Baradei went on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite news network, to explain: "The Arab world must understand that there is a problem in Iraq, and it is not because Iraq is an Arab country. It is because Iraq has not fulfilled its obligations with regard to disarmament."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.