Live From Baghdad: What the Iraqis Told Blix

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United Nations weapons inspectors are back in Baghdad. Their return this week came almost exactly four years after their hasty departure in 1998. That exit had signaled the start of Operation Desert Fox, a four-day, U.S.-led bombing campaign to punish Iraq for failing to comply with UN disarmament resolutions. But Desert Fox was followed by a stalemate — no inspections, and no end to sanctions — until the Security Council two weeks ago adopted Resolution 1441. Now, renewed inspections are not just the route to ending sanctions; they could determine the very future of Saddam Hussein's regime.

So, what's at the top of the inspectors' to-do list? Not looking under Saddam's bed for hidden nukes — at least not right away. The C-130 UN transport plane carrying chief inspector Hans Blix and his team landed at Saddam International Airport with equipment for a more urgent task: industrial vacuum cleaners, to perform some desperately needed housekeeping at the inspectors' base in Baghdad.

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Even as the dapper Swedish diplomat was beginning his meetings with Iraqi officials at the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday morning, the vacuum cleaners were blasting into action on the third floor of the former Canal Hotel, now the UN headquarters in Iraq. So thick was the layer of dust, one inspections official told me, that the rodents who had taken up temporary residence in the offices left tracks. "It is quite eerie to walk through there," says the official. "It is like a time capsule. You can tell that the inspectors left in a hurry. There's a tool box that is open with a screw driver beside it, as if someone said, 'Let's go!' and the person using the screw driver just dropped it and left."

Once the offices get a good cleaning, the next order of business is setting up computers, file cabinets and laboratories. Then the inspections can actually commence. The 20 inspectors who stayed behind in Baghdad after Blix's departure Thursday will be joined by another 20 inspectors on Nov. 25. Their first inspection mission is scheduled for Nov. 27, but it will be the end of the year before the 100-person team envisioned by Blix is fully up and running.

Blix's three-day visit to Baghdad was not an inspection mission but a diplomatic one. Blix, as head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), and Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, held a preliminary meeting with Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Then they had two rounds of talks with Saddam's point man, Lt. Gen. Amer Saadi, a British-educated engineer who once headed Iraq's weapons programs.

Blix wanted to do the Iraqi government the courtesy of explaining what arrangements he was making to resume the inspections. He told the Iraqis that UNMOVIC will need to expand its base in Baghdad and open a field office in the northern city of Mosul. The Iraqis in turn gave the inspectors a list of approved hotels where the inspectors could stay.

General Saadi's team wasted no time in quizzing Blix about Resolution 1441. They worried about how they would be able to come up with a full declaration of Iraq's potential weapons inventory by the Dec. 8 deadline imposed by the Security Council. The Iraqis said that they have no concerns about the reporting requirements for nuclear and biological weapons. But they are concerned that because Iraq has a large chemical industry, it will be difficult to identify each instance where chemicals could theoretically be developed into bombs in the future.

To Iraqi officials, United Nations weapons inspectors are really nothing more than spies. When Saddam's government accepted the UN resolution that enabled their return, Foreign Minister Sabri's letter to Secretary General Kofi Annan denounced the U.S. as "the tyrant of the age" whose allegations against Iraq amounted to "wicked slander."

But in Blix's meetings at the Foreign Ministry, the Iraqis were surprisingly amicable. "During the last inspection phase, things got nasty," an inspections official told me afterwards. "There was none of that this time. It was cordial and informal, like a conversation. They spared us the diatribes."

The world will soon know whether Saddam's government truly intends to permit UN weapons inspections "anywhere, any place, any time," as Blix describes his mandate from the Security Council. But judging from the constructive posture assumed by the Iraqis in this week's meetings in Baghdad, they seem to be taking seriously Resolution 1441's warning that Blix's mission offers Iraq a "final" chance to disarm, or face serious consequences.