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UN: Blix Leaves As UNMOVIC Chief, But He's Not Going Quietly

  • Charles Recknagel

Hans Blix is due today to step down as the chief UN arms inspector for Iraq. His departure comes at the expiration of a three-year contract to lead the UN agency responsible for hunting down Iraq's suspected chemical and biological weapons and mid- to long-range missiles. But Blix is not going quietly. In recent weeks, he has repeatedly suggested that Washington's failure to find weapons of mass destruction casts doubts on the legitimacy of the Iraq war and vindicates his stand that UN arms inspectors were successfully containing the threat from Baghdad.

Prague, 30 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hans Blix is leaving a job that has given him little to do these days.

As head of the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), he was constantly in the public eye in the run-up to the Iraq war. His reports on Iraqi compliance were awaited worldwide as indications to whether Iraq would be disarmed peacefully or by force.

But since Washington and London went to war with Baghdad and now administer Iraq, Blix has largely disappeared from the public eye, and his office is fighting for its survival.

The postwar UN resolution giving the U.S. and Britain a mandate to govern Iraq has committed the Security Council to future discussions on what role UN arms inspectors should have in Iraq. But for now, weapons searches are entirely in the hands of American teams.

So it may be no surprise that Blix -- a 75-year-old legal scholar by training -- did not propose staying for a second term at the head of the UN monitoring group. Instead, he leaves his office today at the expiration of his three-year contract. He has announced his intention to return to his native Sweden and possibly write a "nuanced view" of the Iraqi arms crisis.

Still, if Blix is leaving, he is not going quietly. If his recent public statements are any guide, any memoir he writes is likely to be highly critical of what he sees as Washington's and London's derailing of the Iraqi arms-control effort.

Speaking last week to a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading U.S. policy institute in New York, Blix criticized the fact that UNMOVIC inspectors were able to work in Iraq only 3 1/2 months before Washington and London decided to disarm Baghdad by force.

"I still thought that 3 1/2 months for new inspections was a rather short time before calling it a day," said Blix. Especially now that "the U.S. government is saying, 'Look, you have to have a bit of patience. These things take time,'" regarding their own experience searching for Iraq's alleged weapons.

Blix also cast doubt on Washington's claims that it had clear evidence of the existence of Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction programs or that they posed a pressing threat to world security.

"It is somewhat puzzling, I think, that you can have a 100 percent certainty about [the existence of] weapons of mass destruction and 0 percent certainty about where they are," Blix said.

The run-up to the war saw Blix -- backed by France, Germany, and Russia -- repeatedly urge the Security Council to give his inspectors more time to do their work, despite urgent demands by London and Washington that Iraq fully disarm within weeks or face invasion.

Just a month before the war began, Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, went to Baghdad to underline the need for Iraqi officials to fully prove they had no chemical-, biological-, or nuclear-weapons programs. The two top inspectors later said they were "cautiously optimistic" that Iraq was increasing its levels of cooperation.

But by mid-March, the time for diplomacy had run out. The U.S., Britain, and Spain abandoned their efforts to get a UN resolution giving Baghdad until 17 March to rid itself of suspected weapons of mass destruction, and Washington gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to step down. When he did not, U.S. and British forces attacked.

As Blix now retires, his departure marks the symbolic end of a more than decade-long effort by the international community to use arms inspections to peacefully rid Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction.

The inspection effort began immediately following the 1991 Gulf War with the creation of UNMOVIC's predecessor UNSCOM, and it was backed by economic sanctions and the periodic application of punitive force, including the four-day bombing of Iraqi targets by U.S. and British planes in 1998.

Arms control expert Frida Kuhlau of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden told RFE/RL the UNSCOM-UNMOVIC effort had to contend with three tough obstacles that ultimately made it impossible to continue. It needed lots of time, cooperation from the country being investigated, and the sustained confidence of third-party countries that felt directly threatened.

All those factors proved to be in short supply, and by the time Blix finally declared that Iraq was cooperating in "process" but not in "substance" earlier this year, the U.S. and Britain had lost patience.

"In all disarmament efforts, the big difficulty is confidence. As for Iraq, according to Blix, they were cooperating in the final phase in 'process,' meaning they did allow the UN inspectors to go in where they wanted and were not obstructing them in their work, but in 'substance' they were still not revealing everything," Kuhlau said.

Kuhlau said breakdowns of confidence make it easy for disarmament efforts to be overtaken by the more traditional means of resolving conflicts -- war. But she said that despite the setbacks over Iraq, arms-control efforts are well-established and almost certain to continue as the international community's main defense against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"I hope that the international community won't lose confidence in disarmament because the UN inspections didn't get to finish their mandates. I think [Iraq] is such an individual case that it doesn't really reflect upon the larger, broader picture of disarmament when it comes to biological and chemical weapons," Kuhlau said.

International disarmament efforts are based upon nations signing conventions against developing weapons of mass destruction and committing themselves to inspection processes that assure compliance. To date, no signatories of conventions on chemical and biological weapons have been found in breach of their obligations, making the case of Iraq -- which was not a signatory to those conventions -- a setback in an overall record of successes.

Blix will be succeeded at UNMOVIC by Dimitri Perricos as acting head of the inspections agency. Perricos is the current deputy executive chairman of UNMOVIC and served as the on-the-ground leader of inspectors during the period UNMOVIC was allowed to work in Iraq.