In Iraq and a Hard Place

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The arrival of demonstrators holding banners and shouting slogans usually marks the start of the working day for UN arms inspectors in Iraq. Then come the journalists, grabbing pictures of the UN team's white Toyota Land Cruisers leaving their compound, before hopping into their own cars to give chase. The convoy quickly grows as Iraqi intelligence officials, also driving white Land Cruisers, join the procession. When the team reaches its destination, it is usually greeted with suspicion and anger. And they usually return to base empty-handed.

Despised as spies by the locals and derided as inept by some factions in Washington, the 230 members of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) have some of the toughest jobs in the world. And their report-back to the UN Security Council on Jan. 27 may determine the fate of Saddam Hussein's regime. Washington is impatient to go ahead and get rid of Saddam Hussein, but a number of other Council members insist that no aggression can be justified unless the inspectors find evidence of Baghdad defaulting on its promised disarmament. Until now, however, the inspectors have found little more than some documents that still have to be deciphered and a dozen empty chemical warheads that the Iraqis say they overlooked — a haul unlikely to be viewed as sufficient to make a definitive case. "We are the eyes and ears of the Security Council," Blix protested last week in Baghdad after meeting with Iraqi officials. "How the Security Council will react, what will be the political evaluation, that is up to them."

Iraqis see things differently. An irate poultry-farmer and an outraged Muslim cleric last week denounced the inspections, claiming that their civil and religious rights had been violated. Anwar Mohammad, 59, said that the inspectors looking for biological weapons insisted on breaking open a sealed warehouse containing obsolete equipment. They found nothing, and now Mohammad is demanding "material and moral compensation from the UN," and an apology to him and his country. One scientist has already gone public with accusations of bribery and rudeness. When the inspectors visited 55-year-old Faleh Hassan's home in a posh Baghdad suburb, he says they were intrusive, even examining the personal belongings of his wife and daughters. He also said that one of the inspectors, an American, suggested that she could help him to accompany his wife out of the country to seek medical aid. Now Sheik Qutaiba Sa'adi Amash, a Shia cleric of the blue-domed Al Nid'a Mosque in Baghdad says that the visit of the bare-footed inspectors — and their rather innocuous questions about the area and construction of the structure — was an insult to Islam. "Mosques in Iraq contain nothing that they are looking for," he complained indignantly. "All they will find is our faith, with which we will win the war."

Despite the unpleasantness, the inspectors continue to search. They have already visited nearly 400 sites, and every day, different teams continue to fan out across the country. Suspicion over mosques as hiding places has been raised by Saddam's frenetic mosque-building over the last decade. "From our satellite images we can see roofs, but we needed to check what lies below them," says Dimitri Perricos, the head of Planning and Operations, UNMOVIC. "The first job to do is to enter the building because the most important thing is the inspector's eye."

Iraqis says that UNMOVIC is exceeding its brief, especially because they have been entering the hallowed presidential palaces — and now mosques. Presidential adviser Gen. Amer al-Saadi said that the UN was trying to make a statement. "It is an attempt to explore the mandate all the way. They were given a pretty powerful mandate and they are exercising it, regardless of whether it is necessary or warranted, " he said. Iraq, he added, was going to cooperate.

That is because the regime understands that there is no choice. Vice President Taha Yassim Ramadan said last week that Iraq was determined not to give the inspectors cause to complain. "We don't want to give the US administration any pretext to attack," he said. Officials are hoping cooperation won't only stave off a conflict that could enrage a war-weary populace, but perhaps even bring an end to the sanctions that has ruined the once prosperous economy.

Cooperation, however, hasn't been easy, as the inspectors' experience of trying to interview senior scientists shows. After meeting last weekend with officials in Baghdad, Blix extracted a promise that scientists would be 'encouraged' to participate in interviews — but most are still resisting because they fear being executed in the future, when the world is no longer watching. UNMOVIC has to cope with diplomacy issues as well: Baghdad refused to allow UN surveillance planes in its airspace demanding first that America halt its "illegal" intrusions (the "no-fly" zone patrols) during the UN missions. The UN could not make that promise and therefore, said Saadi, "we could not guarantee the safety of the UN crew," from Iraqi air defenses targeting U.S. and British planes.

In the UN office at Qanat Hotel, there is still no dearth of inputs. Sealed faxes pour in from intelligence agencies around the world. Chemists and biologists have heaps of samples collected from various sites. Iraq's 12,000 page declaration still has to be unraveled and then cross checked with active inspections. Scientists have to be approached for interviews either in the country or preferably outside, away from their minders. The report next week is likely to say that the inspectors need more time, and could use a little more cooperation from the Iraqis, but that they are satisfied with their progress. It will be predictably ambivalent and will satisfy none. No doubt, UNMOVIC is already bracing itself for a few more curses all around.