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READY, SET: The U.N.'s Hans Blix arrives in Baghdad

Is there any job on earth more thankless than that of the U.N. weapons inspectors? On one side they face the Bush Administration, which persuaded the U.N. Security Council to send inspectors back to Iraq but is openly disdainful of their ability to do the job; on the other stands Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who respects them even less. Last week Baghdad invited the inspectors to return after a four-year absence to search for the weapons of mass destruction Saddam says he doesn't have. But the letter of acceptance added that the Iraqi regime "will also take into consideration...the intentions of those who are ill-intentioned amongst them, and their improper approach in showing respect to the people's national dignity" — which suggests that the Iraqis plan to make their guests' lives as frustrating as they can.

But the inspectors who arrived in Iraq this week will have some weapons of their own. They wield more advanced equipment, better intelligence and an all-access mandate to search sites previously kept off limits — not to mention a credible threat of military retaliation if Iraq fails to comply. Even as the inspectors have upgraded their technology and know-how, of course, Saddam has spent the past four years conjuring new ways of keeping his most prized weapons out of reach. "The case of Iraq has stimulated all these new [inspection] techniques," chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, 74, the Swedish head of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), told TIME. "The troubling thing is that those who want to hide things are also becoming aware. The question is, Who is ahead?"

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The test begins with the arrival in Iraq of Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is based in Vienna and is responsible for tracking Iraq's nuclear capabilities. The two diplomats will be accompanied by about 25 advisers and logistics staffers, who will reopen and begin outfitting the former Baghdad offices of the U.N. inspectors who left Iraq in 1998. Under the rules approved by the Security Council, Iraq must provide the U.N. with a full inventory of any weapons of mass destruction by Dec. 8. Though Saddam says he doesn't possess any illicit arms, U.N. officials believe he will not take the chance of being immediately proved to be lying, which could bring on war fast. "The Iraqis will have to reveal what they think U.S. intelligence already knows and hope that they have revealed enough," says a U.N. official.

An advance group of about a dozen inspectors plans to enter Iraq by Nov. 25; their numbers could swell to 100 by the New Year. Blix says his team has already compiled a list of at least 700 potential weapons-production and storage sites inside Iraq and will probably receive more intelligence from U.N. member states, including the U.S., once Iraq presents its own tally. The inspectors have catalogued thousands of places of interest throughout the country in their computer databases and, by accessing commercially available satellite imagery, can call up images simply by typing in their coordinates. Using that technology, U.N. inspectors in Vienna recently showed Time photos of a gray building complex in Baghdad that they plan to visit soon. "We have a good idea where we are going to go first," says Jacques Baute, the chief nuclear-weapons inspector. The UNMOVIC inspectors, who will work in six-week rotations, have received months of training not only in the latest detection techniques but also in Iraqi history and Arab customs and traditions.

Looking over dual-use facilities, which can produce or store both innocuous civilian products and illegal arms, is a top priority for the inspectors. They will measure, for instance, the percentage of nickel alloy in corrosion-resistant equipment at chemical facilities; a high percentage can indicate a weaponization program. "You don't need to be an expert in chemical or biological weapons," says Nikita Smidovich, an UNMOVIC official responsible for training new inspectors. "You just need to be able to spot deviations from the norm." Officials in Vienna are currently poring over Iraqi contracts (3,400 were examined during the past five months) with foreign companies and governments, looking for anything that could be useful in making weaponry. Several years ago, U.N. monitors spotted extra Iraqi orders for fast switches, which can be used both in machines for breaking up kidney stones and in triggers for nuclear bombs.

Inspection teams hunting Saddam's alleged nuclear facilities plan to sample the air, soil and water over wide areas of Iraqi terrain. Enriching uranium produces telltale traces of certain substances, such as iodine 131. Samples taken from a 1998 survey are still sitting in a sealed room at the Canal Hotel, the inspectors' home in Baghdad, waiting to be analyzed. Sampling, however, won't detect whether Saddam has smuggled in weapons-grade fissile material from outside Iraq to achieve his nuclear ambitions.

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