Q&A: The reaction at the UN

Chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei delivered their progress report to the United Nations Security Council Monday. Monitor correspondent Howard LaFranchi was at the UN, and spoke with csmonitor.com news producer Ben Arnoldy.

What's the buzz at the UN?

The feeling at the UN is that the two chief inspectors came through largely with what was expected. Both men gave Iraq a mixed report for its performance on cooperation and disarmament.

How did Blix and ElBaradei characterizes Iraq's level of cooperation with the inspections?

Blix was much less upbeat than ElBaradei about Iraq's overall cooperation. Blix drew a careful distinction between what he called the "process" and "substance" of compliance. Regarding the process - that is, allowing access to sites and facilitating the inspectors' work - Blix said the Iraqis were doing a good job. However, he was much less positive on the substantive questions of disarmament. He gave a number of examples of questions that need to be answered concerning chemical and biological weapons. But he said that more time was needed for those questions to be cleared up.

Blix offered South Africa as an example of how a country being inspected should behave. South Africa actually guided the inspectors to help them in their work. He said that, so far, that kind of proactive cooperation has not been forthcoming, and he advised the Iraqis to do it.

ElBaradei, speaking of Iraq's nuclear program, said there was no evidence that Iraq continued to develop nuclear weapons. But he added that inspectors could not at this point assert that there was no such effort going on. And although he said he was positive about Iraq's cooperation up until now, he advised the Iraqis to come forth with even more cooperation before their window of opportunity closes.

How will these reports impact the White House case for war?

After the two inspectors' declarations, US ambassador to the UN John Negroponte said that the issue was really about two tests that Iraq must pass:

One: provide a full declaration of its programs, procurement, and development of its weapons of mass destruction.

Two: cooperate with UN inspectors so they can ascertain that disarmament has taken place.

Ambassador Negroponte said that, on both counts, Iraq is "back to business as usual."

The White House was clearly bolstered by aspects of the Blix declaration. Although its case was delivered a certain blow by the reports because both gentlemen said there is cooperation and that more progress could be made with more time.

How did other Security Council members react to the report as the Council heads into debate?

Britain indicated that inspections should continue. The inspectors have another report scheduled for February 14. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said that Britain would support that report taking place. This would seem to indicate Britain's support for the inspections progress to continue at least into mid-February.

The ambassadors of China and Russia both highlighted the cooperation that the two inspection chiefs said they have been receiving from the Iraqis. And based on that, the ambassadors of those two countries said the inspections should continue, but that Iraq should heed the calls for greater cooperation.

What was Iraq's response?

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Al Douri, said the report substantiated the Iraqi position that it has fully cooperated with all the obligations of the most recent UN resolution. Because of that, Iraq feels the inspections do not need to continue any longer. But if the UN and the Security Council believed inspections should continue, Iraq would cooperate. He also characterized claims that Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction as "the big lie."

When the Security Council set this date for a progress report, did members expect that this report would be conclusive?

This report was not set up as a do-or-die report by the inspectors. The inspectors have been at work for two months in Iraq, and so it was set as both a way to keep some kind of deadline on the process and to apply pressure on the Iraqis. But it was never set up as a moment of decision. The US has varied its characterization of this particular report. At times they have said it's just one report in the process, and at other times they've said it was expected to provide something close to conclusive evidence of whether the inspections were getting the cooperation they needed.

When is the next report due? And is there a final deadline for the inspections?

As Blix indicated, the next scheduled report is for Feb. 14. The Security Council will meet at a closed session on Wednesday, and at that time could accept or modify that date. At this point - and especially with Britain showing support for another report - it would seem that the Council would accept another report. But the date may be up for question.

Did the inspectors hint at how much more time they would need to finish their work?

Blix noted that the South African disarmament process took two years, and that was with what the inspectors call "exemplary cooperation." While Blix gave that example, he seemed to suggest that in the case of a country which, from his perspective, is not giving full and enthusiastic cooperation, that the process could take more time. But he did not go into specifics.

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