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Inspector: Peace, war up to Iraq

The chief U.N. weapons inspector landed in Cyprus on Sunday to assemble his team for a return to Baghdad and said the "question of war and peace" awaits an answer from Saddam Hussein.

President Bush has warned that Hussein faces military action if he fails to cooperate fully with the inspectors, who will fly to Iraq today. Hussein faces a three-week deadline to reveal weapons of mass destruction or provide convincing evidence he no longer has any.

Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, overseeing the International Atomic Energy Agency's search for nuclear arms, flew to Cyprus from Vienna, Austria. They joined about two dozen other members of the advance team assembling in Cyprus to prepare for a resumption of inspections after a nearly four-year absence.

"The question of war and peace remains first of all in the hands of Iraq, the Security Council and the members of the Security Council," Blix said.

Blix, who will lead the overall mission, said his team was prepared to meet the challenge of ensuring Iraqi compliance. But he said he hoped Iraq would not try to hide anything.

Their first task will be to clean the pigeon droppings out of their old center of operations. The birds, nesting comfortably on the director's desk, have been the only occupants since the U.N. inspection team withdrew four years ago.

Then the work gets even messier: The inspectors must scour a country the size of California for chemical and biological weapons that are suspected to be in underground and mobile labs, and documents that are contained on easily hidden CDs stored in people's homes.

A team of atomic scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency will work in tandem to hunt for nuclear programs _ a slightly easier task because of the size of nuclear equipment and the detectable radiation that is emitted.

But theirs is nearly an impossible job _ there will be trouble if they do find weapons, and trouble if they don't.

Blix's sometimes rumpled appearance hides a precise and scholarly mind, and he is known to be very careful, often legalistic, but quietly independent.

"He may look like he's nice, but he can be tough," said Christer Ahlstroem, deputy director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI.

Blix, a 74-year-old Swedish diplomat, said inspectors would be taking along much more sophisticated equipment than was available when the inspection program was suspended in December 1998.

"We do of course expect to get tips from the (U.N.) member states," Blix said. "We also have modern equipment that is superior to what we had in the past. But . . . we would like the Iraqis to declare, and this is an opportunity for them to do so and we hope that they will seize that opportunity."

Bush is insisting on "zero tolerance" of the Iraqi delaying tactics and deceit that marked the previous inspection effort.

ElBaradei, an Egyptian, said there was a need for "intrusive verifications," meaning inspectors "will use every means at our disposal to make sure that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction."

Also, Iraqis with key information would be interviewed outside the country if it were necessary to protect their safety. But, he acknowledged, "if people do not want to talk, we obviously will not be able to force them to talk."

However, Blix favors cooperation instead of confrontation with the Iraqis, and the differences in approach could create tension between the inspectors and the Bush administration, U.N. officials told the Associated Press on Sunday on condition of anonymity.

One official said the Americans are keen to beef up the mission with staff and equipment Blix may not consider necessary.

ElBaradei spoke of "second-guessing" when asked about pressure from Security Council members. Blix acknowledged input from different governments, but said, "It is we who will decide what to do."

Although Blix has urged the United States to provide more intelligence support for his mission, he also warned over the weekend of the pitfalls of such cooperation, saying in Paris that the previous inspection mission failed in part because of its close association with government intelligence agencies and Western states.

The last inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 amid Iraqi allegations that some were spying for the United States and countercharges that Iraq was not cooperating with the teams. Their departure was followed by four days of punishing U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq.

Blix and ElBaradei warned Sunday they would not tolerate attempts to coerce their staff into surreptitiously sharing information with governments.

"I can never guarantee that everyone will be 100 percent in my service," Blix said. "But if we find anyone doing anything else, it's bye-bye."

In a nod to U.S. concerns, Blix and ElBaradei said inspections will be tough, thorough and leave no space for deceit.

"We do not take "no' for an answer," ElBaradei said. "We have to verify to make sure a "no' is actually a "no.' "

Blix has said that preliminary inspections likely will resume Nov. 27, with full-scale checks beginning after Iraq files a declaration of its banned weapons programs by a Dec. 8 deadline. Blix then has 60 days to report back to the U.N. Security Council with his findings.

Hussein agreed Wednesday to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons after the Security Council approved a toughly worded resolution.

Baghdad, however, insisted in a nine-page letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that it does not have any such weapons.

The U.N. resolution gives Iraq "a final opportunity" to eliminate its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them. It gives inspectors the right to go anywhere at anytime and warns Iraq it will face "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate.

After Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions that cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors verify that Iraq is free of such weapons and missiles.

The advance team will reopen the office used by the previous inspections regime and set up secure phone lines and transportation.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.