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UN: Inspectors To Present Key Assessment Of Iraqi Cooperation Today

UN weapons inspectors for Iraq are due today to present their first report to the Security Council regarding the extent of Iraq's cooperation on disarmament. Chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei are making the report amid a tense world debate over how long the inspectors should be permitted to work before decisions are made regarding using force against Baghdad. RFE/RL looks at the importance of the arms inspectors' address.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Top UN arms inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammad el-Baradei are due to present the Security Council with their first formal assessment of Iraq's cooperation on disarmament today.

The address, beginning at 1630 Prague time, is arousing worldwide interest because it will be a key event in helping determine whether there is a war in Iraq and -- if so -- whether it will be a unilateral campaign by the United States and Britain or a multilateral effort with broad international backing.

Blix, who heads investigations into Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs, is expected to tell the Security Council that he is not satisfied with the level of Iraqi cooperation in a number of areas.

He is likely to say that although the UN has demanded Iraq's active participation in disarmament -- including full divulgence of information on its weapons programs -- Baghdad is failing to answer many of the inspectors' key questions.

Blix may have given a preview of his remarks when he spoke with reporters about the level of Iraqi cooperation last week. He said: "If you ask, 'Are they (Iraqis) proactive?' I think, so far, I have said, 'No, I don't think they have come to that stage yet.'"

Among the inspectors' unanswered questions are the current whereabouts of some 30,000 chemical and biological warheads that Baghdad was known to possess in the past but which were not mentioned in Iraq's weapons declaration to the Security Council last month. In a sign Baghdad may be deliberately hiding them from inspectors, UN teams discovered 12 warheads capable of carrying chemical weapons in a search earlier this month.

Blix also is expected to say Iraq is putting obstructive conditions on the inspectors' use of high-altitude surveillance planes to monitor suspected weapons-development sites.

And Blix could fault Baghdad for frightening away Iraqi scientists whom inspectors want to interview. The Iraqi government says it encourages the scientists to agree to private interviews but that they personally refuse to do so.

Still, Blix and el-Baradei, who heads teams investigating Iraq's suspected nuclear programs, have also signaled they will ask the Security Council for more time to do their work before any final decisions are made as to whether the inspection process is working. El-Baradei told reporters last week that "quite a few more months" are needed to search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

If the inspectors recommend months of more work, the assessment will likely heighten disagreements between many states over whether the UN should continue trying to disarm Iraq peacefully. The United States and Britain -- backed by some European countries and Australia -- have repeatedly said in past weeks that Baghdad has already shown it is actively obstructing the arms inspections.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated that point in an interview with the BBC yesterday: "What we have is the intelligence that says that Saddam has continued to develop these weapons of mass destruction -- that what he is doing is using a whole bunch of dual-use facilities in order to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. And what we know is that there is an elaborate program of concealment, as I say, that is pushing this stuff into different parts of the country and therefore forcing the UN inspectors to play a game of hide and seek."

The UN inspectors returned to work in November after being banned by Baghdad for four years.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said that "time is running out" for Iraq. "Tomorrow [27 January], chief inspector [Hans] Blix and [Mohammad] el-Baradei will make their report to the United Nations Security Council. My government will study their report carefully. We'll study it with gravity. And we will exchange views on its findings that are presented with other members of the council. We are in no great rush for judgment tomorrow or the day after, but clearly time is running out. There is no longer an excuse for Iraqi denial of its obligations. We must have Iraq participate in the disarmament or be disarmed."

Powell said last week: "The question isn't how much longer do you need for inspections to work. Inspections will not work." That statement echoed charges by U.S. President George W. Bush that Saddam is using the arms inspections to distract the world's attention while continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. "He wants to play hide-and-seek. He's got a vast country. He wants to focus the attention of the world on inspectors. This is not about inspectors -- this is about a disarmed Iraq," Bush said.

The U.S. and Britain, which have unilaterally deployed forces to the Persian Gulf, say Baghdad must prove it is disarming quickly or face a military assault.

Washington has said it will make no decision to attack based solely on the chief UN inspectors' report today. But U.S. officials also say any UN assessment that Iraq is not cooperating will strengthen their conviction that Iraq may have to be disarmed militarily. U.S. officials say their timetable for deciding whether to use force is a matter of "weeks, not months."

However, other key European countries, and most of the Arab world, strongly favor pursuing peaceful solutions to the Iraqi crisis. They want to reserve any decision on using force for the UN itself.

Germany, France, and Russia, backed by many other European countries, issued strong statements this month that they will not back a war against Iraq outside of the UN framework.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, speaking jointly with French President Jacques Chirac last week in Berlin, stressed that the UN alone should determine if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and that both leaders want the inspection process to continue. "You know that the United Nations, the institution which evaluates those conflicts and has to find a solution, has passed Resolution 1441. That resolution demands that Iraq must not have any weapons of mass destruction. Whether it has any, that is being determined at the moment by the UN weapons inspectors led by Mr. Blix. And we support those inspections," Schroeder said.

Berlin, which assumes the rotating chairmanship of the full 15-member Security Council next month, says it will push to give the inspectors more time by demanding they present a second assessment of Iraqi cooperation to the body in mid-February.

The mounting calls for a fast decision on Iraq from the U.S. and Britain, on one side, and the counter-calls for more time from the key continental European powers on the other, set the stage for what could be intense new political maneuvering by all parties in the coming weeks.

That maneuvering is likely to begin as soon as Blix and el-Baradei end their presentation today and each state determines whether their report strengthens -- or weakens -- its arguments. The stakes include whether arms inspectors will get more time to work, whether the U.S. will seek a new UN resolution to disarm Iraq by force, and -- finally -- whether the U.S. will decide to lead an attack on Iraq with or without broad international support in the months immediately ahead.