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U.N. weapons inspectors are back in Iraq after a four-year hiatus. An advance team of about 30, accompanied by Mr. Hans Blix, head of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, and Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Baghdad on Monday aboard a chartered flight. Formal inspections are expected to begin on Nov. 27 following consultations with Iraqi officials and logistic preparations.

The inspectors will be working under the shadow of a threatened U.S. strike against Iraq. But war is not inevitable, Mr. Blix said, if Iraq cooperates with them in earnest. It is hoped that Baghdad will provide full cooperation, with no strings attached. The United States, for its part, should fully support this opportunity to avoid war by ensuring that the inspections are thorough.

UNMOVIC, created in 1999, must set an example of effective arms inspection. Its predecessor, the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which was charged with destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, was disbanded because of systematic obstruction by Baghdad. Using various tricks and ploys, the Republican Guard, an elite force tasked with protecting President Saddam Hussein and defending the Iraqi capital, kept inspectors away from the sites where Iraq was hiding related materials, equipment and data. Baghdad blamed UNSCOM for harboring American spies.

In December 1998, following a series of obstructionist moves on the part of Iraq, U.S. forces mounted a bombing campaign against Iraqi military installations. The four-day operation, known as Desert Fox, brought the inspections to a grinding halt. UNMOVIC was created the following year to replace UNSCOM, but so far no inspections have been conducted.

The new U.N. Security Council resolution, which was unanimously adopted earlier this month, calls for unconditional inspections. Inspectors will be able to enter all facilities, including the vast complex of “presidential palaces” that Iraq had shielded from previous inspections on the grounds that access by outsiders would violate its sovereignty. The inspection team is authorized to take Iraqi scientists out of the country for questioning. Accompanied by armed guards, inspectors also will be able to bar the entry of Iraqi personnel into facilities under inspection.

If Iraq makes false reports or obstructs inspections, it will face “serious consequences,” meaning that the U.S. will attack it. Baghdad last week informed the Security Council of its acceptance of the resolution, thus opening the way for the return of U.N. inspectors. This time around President Hussein must respond with sincerity; he can flout U.N. authority only at his peril.

Inspections will be conducted by UNMOVIC and IAEA. According to a report released in August, UNMOVIC had 64 inspectors from 27 countries stationed at the U.N. headquarters on a regular basis. Additionally, when extra help is needed, the commission can call up 220 reserve specialists from 44 countries.

UNMOVIC inspections are expected to cover about 700 suspect sites in Iraq. Technical specialists will conduct detailed checks on materials, equipment and data related to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles. In the event of an organized coverup, the ability of U.N.-trained inspectors will be put on the line.

The big question is whether a war with Iraq can be avoided. Information emanating from the Bush administration suggests military action might start early next year. The prevailing view, at least in official Washington, appears to be that war is inevitable because, judging from President Hussein’s past behavior, it will be difficult to carry out full inspections.

But anticipating a war even before the start of inspections is denying the value of inspections themselves. If Iraq actually violates the UNSC resolution, then the council should determine whether the violation constitutes a “material breach” — a major violation that would give a green light to the use of force. The sticking point is exactly what a material breach means. The U.S. should not interpret it unilaterally to justify an invasion of Iraq.

At any rate, tension will likely build in the Mideast from late this year to early next year, depending on interactions between the inspection team and Baghdad. What is important in this process is that inspections be conducted without a foregone conclusion. The primary objective is to thoroughly check all suspect sites to strip Iraq of all weapons of mass destruction in a peaceful manner. To this end, all nations involved must make their utmost efforts. It is still possible to avoid a war with Iraq.

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