United Nations-led inspections of areas where Iraq is suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction have resumed after a hiatus of four years. On the first day, last Wednesday, an 11-member team from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission, or UNMOVIC, as well as a six-member group from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, separately inspected two facilities without warning.

The inspections reportedly went smoothly without any interference from the Iraqi side. From now on, though, difficult and detailed inspections are expected to be conducted in a highly charged atmosphere. There is a danger that differences in opinion between the U.N. and the United States concerning the focus of the inspections and the contents of inspection reports will rise to the surface.

On the first day, the IAEA team inspected a factory located about three hours north of Baghdad, while the UNMOVIC team went to a graphite rod factory about six hours to the south of the capital. According to Mr. Dimitri Perricos, the leader of UNMOVIC, graphite can be used in the head cones of missiles. The Iraqi side was cooperative. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan commented, “I think it [the inspection] got off to a rather good start.”

However, Iraq is a veteran of dodging inspections. In 1991, following the Persian Gulf War, Iraq was prohibited from developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and missiles by a U.N. Security Council resolution. Although Iraq said it had nothing to hide and accepted inspections, 48 Scud missiles and 40,000 tons of chemical weapon substances were reportedly discovered and scrapped in the nearly seven years that the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), the forerunner of UNMOVIC, sent inspection teams to Iraq.

UNSCOM finally withdrew the last team from the country in 1998 after Iraq had done everything it could to block progress. Phones had been tapped and related materials removed from facilities when Iraq sensed beforehand that inspections were scheduled. Inspection teams even got stuck in apparently orchestrated traffic jams on the way to sites.

This time, however, Iraq must tread carefully because the U.N. resolution prescribes “serious consequences” if there are any such obstructions. That could mean a military strike by the U.S. Still, the possibility remains that Iraq will try to disrupt the inspections in more subtle ways.

There has been some doubt about UNMOVIC’s capability to detect suspicious facilities and materials. This time the inspection team is armed with new equipment, such as an apparatus to prevent wiretapping, low-flying surveillance planes and radar to look for underground facilities. It is also trying to increase the number of inspectors to around 300, including shift personnel, by the end of this month so that 80 to 100 inspectors operate together on a single mission.

Iraq, however, is about 15 percent larger than Japan in area, while UNMOVIC and IAEA have set out to inspect as many as 1,000 locations. It is an awesome task. For the time being the inspectors appear to be giving priority to about 100 sites.

In most cases, the targets of inspection are general-purpose materials and equipment that could be used for both military and civilian purposes. Therefore, detecting whether Iraq has intentions to develop weapons of mass destruction demands a high level of specialized knowledge. Chief weapons inspector Mr. Hans Blix is optimistic, saying “the production of mustard gas is not exactly the same as the production of marmalade.” In reality, though, very fine judgments are going to have to be made.

The schedule is a tight one, too. Under the Security Council resolution, the inspection mission is obliged to submit a report within 60 days after the inspections begin — that is, by the end of January. By next Sunday, Iraq must submit a report on all of its clandestine plans, if any, for developing weapons of mass destruction. Since it denies developing or possessing any such weapons, it has told Mr. Blix of its concern about the contents of the report.

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is said to have obtained information related to Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction but that it has not yet revealed its hand. It appears ready to wait for the Iraqi report and then indicate whether serious violations exist as a result of discrepancies between the report and its own information.

Regardless of the U.S. tactics, it is necessary above all else to prepare materials, including the results of the inspections, so that the U.N. Security Council can make objective judgments. It is a tense situation, but the first thing we must hope for is a rigorous and impartial regime of inspections.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.