BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – International arms inspectors, “fully conscious” of their responsibility, are ready to fan out over Iraq with the latest detection gear in search of mobile labs, underground factories or other signs the Iraqis are still committed to the deadliest of weapons, top inspectors said yesterday.

Paul Wong
AP PHOTO
Jacques Baute of the U.N. nuclear agency shows members of the media some of the tools to be used by weapons inspectors as they are displayed at the UN headquarters before a news conference in Baghdad yesterday.

The U.N. team mounts its first field missions today in what is expected to be months of difficult, detailed inspections of hundreds of Iraqi sites. Its first targets will be installations inspected and “neutralized” in the 1990s.

The future of peace in the Middle East may hinge on the outcome of the search. The United States, steadily reinforcing its military in the region, has warned it will disarm Iraq by force if the inspections fail.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush “hopes the inspectors will take their responsibilities very seriously, and he knows they will, to find out whether Iraq has indeed disarmed. And the president thinks this is a healthy process.”

If Iraq does not cooperate, Fleischer said, “the president has said he has a policy of zero tolerance, and Saddam Hussein will have to figure out exactly what zero tolerance means.”

The monitors are back after a four-year break under a new mandate from the U.N. Security Council to test the Baghdad government’s contention that it has no arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, or programs to build them.

Earlier teams of U.N. experts, in seven years’ work ending in 1998, destroyed large amounts of chemical and biological armaments and longer-range missiles forbidden to Iraq by U.N. resolutions after the Gulf War, in which an Iraqi invasion force was driven from Kuwait. The inspectors also dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons program before it could build a bomb.

Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix says, however, it’s “an open question” whether the Iraqis retained some weapons – especially chemical. British and U.S. leaders say they’re sure Iraq has such arms, and suspect it also is rebuilding production programs.

A working group of 17 inspectors landed in Baghdad on Monday, the first contingent of some 100 who will be operating in Iraq at any one time by year’s end. More than 300 experts are available on the rosters of the two U.N. inspecting agencies – the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, and Blix’s New York-based U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC.

The two local operational chiefs met with reporters in Baghdad yesterday, and said they have clear – if secret – game plans for the months ahead.

“We are fully conscious of the responsibility we have on our shoulders,” said Jacques Baute of the nuclear watchdog agency.

Demetrius Perricos, the UNMOVIC team leader, was asked whether the arms monitors will look for suspected truck-borne biological weapons laboratories. A recent U.S. intelligence report said an Iraqi document indicated Baghdad “was interested in developing mobile fermentation units” for biological weapons.

This is “not something we find incredible,” Perricos said.

“We have some plans,” he said. He noted inspectors have the right to stop suspect vehicles on Iraqi roads, but he wouldn’t discuss the plans further.

As for possible buried storage or production sites, “we have a strategy for underground facilities” using ground-penetrating radar, Perricos said.

Building a nuclear bomb requires a huge infrastructure, and the IAEA inspectors of the 1990s were able to find and destroy that Iraqi technology. Now, said agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, “we’ll be looking for signs of renewed nuclear activity in any way, shape or form.”

The U.N. inspectors are to report to the Security Council by late January on their initial round of inspections, including whether the Iraqis have been fully cooperative.

The council has warned of “serious consequences” for Iraq if the Baghdad government is found in major violation of the U.N. disarmament demands. Bush has threatened military action against Iraq in that case, with or without U.N. sanction.

Iraq must submit a declaration by Dec. 8 detailing any such weapons programs, as well as nuclear, chemical or biological programs it claims have peaceful purposes. The Iraqis complain that this is too sweeping, encompassing even plastic slippers produced by its petrochemical industry.

If the inspectors eventually certify that Iraq has cooperated fully with their disarmament work, U.N. resolutions provide for the lifting of international economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The inspections were suspended in 1998 amid disputes over U.N. access to Iraqi sites and Iraqi complaints of American spying via the U.N. operation.

The U.N. teams say they now are interested in up to 900 Iraqi sites. They’re expected to focus first on sites surveyed in the 1990s, to check on cameras and other equipment left behind to monitor activity. Later, they’re expected to branch out to new sites – for example, suspected storage places for chemical weapons U.S. intelligence alleges are still held by Iraq.

On the eve of the first inspection, Iraq’s official news agency reported that Iraqi air defense batteries fired yesterday at American and British warplanes that carried dozens of sorties in the northern and southern “no-fly zones,” which were established to protect Kurds and Shiite Muslims from Iraqi forces.

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