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UN: UNMOVIC Sidelined, But Annan Stresses Mandate Still Valid

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asserted that the role of UNMOVIC, the UN inspections mission in Iraq, is still valid and will be resumed once hostilities in Iraq subside. But the mission has been sidelined in the early days of the U.S.-led invasion, as coalition experts investigate leads for suspected weapons of mass destruction. A U.S. official tells RFE/RL that it's too early to say what role UNMOVIC will have.

United Nations, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. forces pursue their first leads about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, they are so far acting without the aid of the UN mission responsible for Iraqi disarmament issues for the past three years.

Finding and verifying the existence of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is a major goal for the U.S.-led coalition as it advances through Iraq. But the question of which experts would ultimately be responsible for investigations has surfaced with the first report of a site suspected of holding chemical weapons.

A plant captured by U.S. forces in Najaf, south of Baghdad, has drawn speculation that it could be a chemical-weapons facility. U.S. military officials say they are investigating with their own experts for the time being.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters yesterday that Security Council resolutions setting the mandate for the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC) are still valid. But he said their ability to inspect will depend on conflict conditions.

"UNMOVIC still has the responsibility for the disarmament of Iraq. And if the situation permits, since the council resolutions are valid, they will be expected to go back to Iraq and inspect," Annan said.

It's not clear when that would be. A spokesman for UNMOVIC, Ewen Buchanan, told RFE/RL yesterday he's unaware of any contacts so far with U.S. military experts to verify leads from captured Iraqis or seized documents.

U.S. officials are known to be in contact with experts from the previous UN inspection mission, known as UNSCOM, to assist in their initial work on suspected sites.

A U.S. diplomat told RFE/RL that it's too early to say what role UNMOVIC inspectors will have. The diplomat said: "There may be a need to contact UNMOVIC in some way. Obviously, this depends on when things are in a calmer stage when people can go in and do a verification."

Annan ordered UN inspectors, along with other UN staff, out of Iraq one week ago ahead of the U.S.-led attack aimed at removing the Iraqi government.

His chief inspectors said in three months of inspections they had not found evidence that Iraq was producing banned weapons. But chief inspector Hans Blix also says Iraq has not provided adequate responses to questions about missing stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Iraq has repeatedly said it has destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction. Blix told the Associated Press he has ordered some inspectors to be ready to make a quick return to Baghdad once the fighting ends.

The presence of UNMOVIC inspectors would be crucial to sway world opinion on Iraq's weapons programs, said Jonathan Tucker, a former UN inspector and weapons expert at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies.

Tucker told RFE/RL that the United States has considerable expertise in chemical and biological weapons but needs the credibility of an international presence when findings are made. "If they do find something, I think they will have to somehow internationalize it in order to give it greater credibility. I don't think that, if the U.S. finds stocks of chemical weapons, and does an analysis and says they contain sarin or mustard [gas], that other countries would necessarily believe that finding unless it was confirmed by countries outside the coalition," Tucker said.

Tucker said UNMOVIC would also be useful for the long-term monitoring of Iraq because it has Security Council authorization for inspecting dual-use facilities throughout the country in the nuclear, chemical, and biological fields.