An advance team of U.N. inspectors arrived here Monday afternoon to resume the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a politically sensitive and logistically challenging mission that could determine whether the United States launches a war against President Saddam Hussein's government.
After arriving at Saddam International Airport aboard a civilian version of a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, said comprehensive and credible inspections are "in the interest of Iraq and the interest of the world."
Perhaps mindful of his surroundings and his desire for Iraqi cooperation, Blix struck a more conciliatory tone than he did on leaving U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday, when he warned Iraq that he would not tolerate "cat and mouse" games. In brief comments to journalists gathered at the airport here, he reiterated that his team would be fair to Iraq, adding: "We will report objectively. We will do our job professionally."
U.N. officials said Blix's comments were intended to win the confidence of Iraqi officials. But his strategy to seek cooperation over confrontation has been criticized by some officials in the Bush administration, which wants Blix to swiftly embark on intrusive inspections and impose strict reporting requirements on the Iraqi government to test Hussein's willingness to comply with a new U.N. Security Council resolution. Should Iraq fail to comply, President Bush has said, "the United States will lead a coalition and disarm him."
Before mentioning the danger of war, however, Blix emphasized that compliance would result in the lifting of economically debilitating U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. He also asserted that the cooperation of Hussein's government could help set in motion a political process to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in other Middle Eastern nations.
Although Blix did not specify Israel, it is the only nation in the region known to be equipped with nuclear weapons, a strategic advantage that has long galled Iraq and other Arab countries. Egypt, Syria, Iran and perhaps Libya, in addition to Iraq, have been cited by U.S. officials as countries in the region that possess or are trying to develop chemical weapons.
Had Iraq complied with a U.N. order to disarm after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Blix said, "then 10 years of sanctions would have been unnecessary."
The inspectors' arrival coincided with increased activity in the northern Iraqi no-fly zone. The U.S. military said allied warplanes bombed Iraqi defense systems Monday after being fired on during routine patrols.
In the south, U.S. planes bombed three sites after Iraqi air defense units fired on them. The strikes hit an air defense communications facility near Tallil and a radar and communications site near Al Kut.
The U.N. resolution, which was unanimously approved Nov. 8, calls for inspectors to be given access to any person or place in Iraq _ including mosques, military bases and Hussein's palaces _ without having to seek permission or provide advance notice. The resolution also gives Hussein's government until Dec. 8 to provide a complete account of the status of its chemical, biological and nuclear facilities.
Full-scale inspections are to resume after the Iraqi declaration. Blix has been asked to deliver a report to the Security Council within 60 days.
Blix, a 74-year-old Swedish diplomat who used to head the International Atomic Energy Agency, was accompanied by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's current director, and about 25 technical personnel who will set up communications systems, arrange transportation and assemble monitoring equipment.
About 12 arms experts are scheduled to arrive Nov. 25 and formally begin inspections two days later, according to Ewen Buchanan, the inspectors' chief spokesman. They will be joined by another 80 inspectors in the following weeks, he said.