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January 26, 2003
U.N. Inspections | The U.S. and Iraqi militaries | Iraq overview

The current crisis and buildup

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Weapons experts launch a more intensive search this time, with better technology, more personnel and a stronger mandate.

Before leaving Iraq in 1998, United Nations weapons inspectors tagged equipment they thought needed to be destroyed, including some that may have been used for legitimate civilian purposes but could be converted for use in making biological weapons. That exercise has paid off as a second group of U.N. inspectors combs the country for evidence that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

Nuclear experts reportedly have found nothing suspicious.

Recently, chemical- and biological-weapons inspectors have found several empty warheads that could be filled with poison gas or toxins. Iraq said the location of the warheads was unreported because of a bookkeeping error, and while the Bush administration said the discovery was disturbing, it did not claim it was the "smoking gun" that would prove Saddam was in non-compliance.

Previously, inspectors reportedly had been finding little amiss. For instance, in December a team found a dozen artillery shells just as inspectors had left them in 1998, filled with mustard gas, sealed and tagged for destruction.

That team's mission was to locate and secure those mustard-gas munitions and check earthen mounds and storage bunkers at al-Muthanna, once the centerpiece of Iraq's chemical-weapons program.

About 270 inspectors from 48 countries have been in Iraq since November, hunting down biological, chemical and nuclear weapons the U.N. forbade Iraq to have after the Gulf War.


Saddam has maintained he has no such weapons of mass destruction; the Bush administration and Britain insist he does and is merely hiding them.

This team of inspectors is not the same team that endured a seven-year hide-and-seek game over Saddam's suspected arsenal and then was withdrawn just before the U.S. and Britain began airstrikes against the recalcitrant Iraqis in 1998.

This team has newer technology and a no-holds-barred mandate from the U.N. to find whatever Saddam may have hidden.

The inspectors — divided into teams according to their expertise — have 700 sites to examine in a country that is a little smaller than Texas.

By Iraqi count, 230 sites were visited in a blitz of inspections over the holidays. Inspectors have since stepped up the pace, using six U.S.- and Russian-made helicopters to enable team members to drop in unannounced.

On one day in December, teams visited an antibiotics factory, a missile-test pad, a missile plant and firing range and an electronics plant.

Nuclear experts have come up dry, but U.S. analysts say there is evidence of a stockpile of banned chemical and biological weapons.

After reviewing the 12,000-page declaration of weapons programs that Iraq presented the U.N. in early December, analysts reportedly said its major omissions include a failure to explain the fate of 550 mustard-gas shells and 150 bombs containing biological agents that were unaccounted for in the 1990s.

Among the missing: the remnants of warheads for 50 long-range missiles that Iraq said it had destroyed; quantities of deadly biological agents Iraq produced, including botulinum toxin, (which causes botulism), anthrax; gangrene gas (which rots flesh) and aflatoxin (which causes liver cancer).

Baghdad also said it did research on rotavirus, which causes diarrhea, and hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus, which affects the eyes.

Inspectors also want to know whether Iraq has supplies of smallpox virus.


The U.S. and Britain have shared some sensitive intelligence with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. But Pentagon officials reportedly have been hesitant to help much. They don't want to give away possible Iraqi missile or weapons sites because they would be among the first bombing targets if there's a war.

"This is what we want," Blix told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. and Britain "have all their methods to look, listen to telephone conversations, they have spies. They had satellites, etc., so they have a lot of sources which we do not have."

Saddam has maintained the inspectors are nothing more than spies, that the U.S. is only using them as a pretext for war against Iraq.

And the inspections have given Iraqi plant managers cause to complain. One told journalists the inspectors have interrupted work at his plant and one complained they made unannounced visits during the holidays.

U.N. Inspections | The U.S. and Iraqi militaries | Iraq overview

Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector

Twenty years ago, Hans Blix reported to the United Nations that Iraq was not trying to build a nuclear weapon.

His critics say it's a black mark that shouldn't be forgotten. His supporters say he won't be taken for that ride again.

Blix was director general of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1981 to 1997. The agency tries to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through the inspection of declared nuclear sites in countries that have signed the global Nonproliferation Treaty. Iraq was one of 187 signatories.

During the 1980s, Blix concluded that Iraq had no nuclear-weapons program. But when inspectors visited after the 1991 Gulf War — when Iraq was required to allow more intrusive checks — they discovered an aggressive program well under way.

In 1998, Saddam became very uncooperative with inspectors, and the United Nations pulled them out as the U.S. and Britain prepared to bomb Iraq.

Critics say Blix may be too mild-mannered for the job this time — even though he urged and got authorization for more rigorous inspections. And a State Department report last year found that Blix did a competent job under the guidelines in place in the 1990s.

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