UN Moves to Take Iraqi Scientists Abroad

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Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix

Even as UN weapons inspectors scour Iraqi installations for signs of prohibited weapons programs, Bush administration officials have insisted that their work would not be complete without interviewing Iraqi scientists outside the country. Now, TIME has learned from sources close to the inspection process, UNMOVIC inspectors plan to begin that process within days, when they will begin inviting an undisclosed number of Iraqi scientists to leave Iraq and be interviewed in Cyprus. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 allows for the inspectors to interview scientists outside of Iraq, taking them and their families to locations where they will be free from intimidation by Saddam Hussein's regime. But the resolution provided no guidelines on the mechanics of such a process — where such interviews might take place, how the scientists and their families might be shepherded out of Iraq, how any request for political asylum would be handled, and so on. Although Cyprus has agreed to host the interviews, it has refused to grant asylum to Iraqi scientists and their families — although Britain and the U.S. have previously offered to take them.

But creating a safe haven where scientists can be interviewed abroad and their families can be put beyond Saddam's reach doesn't necessarily mean those scientists will agree to leave the country. UNMOVIC has made clear that it is unable to take Iraqi scientists abroad if they decline the invitation to travel. "We are not going to abduct anybody," said chief inspector Dr. Hans Blix last month. "And we're not serving as a defection agency." A hint of the problems that may arise emerged recently when UNMOVIC sought a private interview with an Iraqi academic, and the scientist himself insisted on an Iraqi government official being present. Not surprisingly, UNMOVIC is being tight-lipped over just who it plans to ask, and how the process of taking them out of Iraq may proceed.

Still, Baghdad will be far from comfortable at the prospect of individuals who may have damning evidence against the regime being allowed to spill the beans free from the threat of reprisals against themselves or their loved ones, and then defect to the West. But UNMOVIC is determined to conduct such interviews before its January 27 deadline for reporting back to the Security Council, and Iraq has been put on notice that any interference in the process will be viewed by the Council as the sort of demonstrable non-cooperation that would be taken as "material breach" that could trigger military action. Until now, Iraq has placed no obstacles in the path of the inspectors. Its response to UNMOVIC's efforts to interview scientists abroad, however, will be the toughest test yet of Baghdad's compliance.