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Iraq: UN Inspection Chief Starts Work Under Difficult Conditions

Hans Blix today assumes the role of chief of the UN's new arms inspection mission in Iraq. He arrives at a time of continuing divisions among Security Council members over the severity of sanctions against Iraq and two recent high-profile resignations by humanitarian officials who were critical of the UN program in Iraq. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 1 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The day before Hans Blix was to take up his duties, there were a number of developments indicating how difficult his job will be.

The UN Security Council held informal briefings with the outgoing director of the UN humanitarian aid coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck. The aid director announced two weeks he would be leaving his post at the end of March because he believed the aid program was failing to provide for the basic needs of the Iraqi people.

His comments touched on an issue that has divided the permanent members of the Security Council. French and Russian representatives have said there needs to be an easing of the sanctions. U.S. and British officials have maintained that the Iraqi government is at fault for the suffering of Iraqis.

UN officials said the informal council meeting yesterday was a compromise decision after some permanent members of the council had pushed for a formal discussion with von Sponeck.

The council yesterday also held difficult discussions over an Iraqi request to use funds from oil sales to send pilgrims to the Islamic pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, which begins this week at Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met von Sponeck on Monday. He told reporters yesterday that he made it clear to von Sponeck that the Security Council was responsible for establishing the conditions for the Iraqi sanctions regime.

"Von Sponeck is following his conscience and I've told him conscience is very much a personal thing and we all have to follow our inner compass when you feel strongly. But it is the Security Council that sets policy, not von Sponeck or anybody in the Secretariat. We as civil servants have to implement these policies."

U.S. officials in Washington and at the United Nations repeated their criticism of the Iraqi government. They said it is the government of Saddam Hussein that is responsible for failing to provide for the needs of the Iraqi people.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, said the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq, which has been in place since 1996, should be providing proper levels of supplies to support Iraqis.

"The fault for any discomfort that is felt by the Iraqi people lies with Saddam Hussein. The present oil-for-food program and other arrangements leave plenty of room for resources to reach Iraq and they are denied that opportunity by the Iraqi government."

Meanwhile, under a Security Council resolution passed last December, the new UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) will begin forming with the goal of resuming inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Baghdad has already rejected UNMOVIC, saying it is in compliance with resolutions on eliminating its weapons of mass destruction.

But there have been no substantive inspections in nearly 15 months. Inspectors who have worked in Iraq say it is still necessary to monitor Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.

Blix is familiar with Iraq's nuclear capabilities through his work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a position he left two years ago. The IAEA carries out routine inspections of nuclear power facilities and has inspected Iraqi sites.

The UN secretary-general told reporters yesterday he hoped that Blix's skills and familiarity with Iraq would allow for inspections to resume smoothly.

"We all know that the implementation of the Iraqi resolutions have not been easy for anyone and I don't think it's going to be any different for Mr. Blix but he's very experienced, he's a good diplomat, a good leader and a good manager and I hope he will be able to work with the Iraqi authorities and for us to make progress."

UNMOVIC was created last mid-December to replace the defunct UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which tried to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction from 1991 to 1998. Baghdad barred all UN inspections during 1999 in retaliation for the bombings by U.S. and British warplanes.