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Baghdad weapons inspectors to return as soon as possible

Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — With U.S. disarmament teams already operating inside Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday he expects U.N. weapons inspectors to be able to return as soon as possible.

“I think they are the ones with the mandate to disarm Iraq, and when the situation permits they should go back to resume their work,” Annan said.

But the Bush administration, which argued bitterly with chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei over whether Iraq has chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, hasn’t invited U.N. inspectors to take part in the disarmament process.

Instead, the United States has tried to hire away some of the U.N. inspectors, whose years of dealing with Iraq have made them the world’s foremost authorities on the country’s weapons arsenal.

“We’re still in a military phase,” said Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, when asked whether U.N. inspectors would be returning.

Under Security Council resolutions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, U.N. inspectors must certify that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs have been dismantled before sanctions can be lifted. It isn’t clear how sanctions could be eliminated if the inspectors are barred from returning.

The U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission — known as UNMOVIC and headed by Blix — is responsible for overseeing the elimination of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs, along with the long-range missiles that deliver them. The International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by El Baradei, is responsible for eliminating Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

While the United States has given no indication it wants the U.N. inspectors back, its closest ally, Britain, has backed their return.

“That suits us,” said Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock. “We would like UNMOVIC to play a role in objective identification and verification of what WMD (weapons of mass destruction) turn up.”

The U.S. disarmament specialists are equipped with ground-penetrating radar, sensors and sample-taking apparatus similar to that used by U.N. inspectors. Working with several former U.N. inspectors, they will probably go to many of the same locations the U.N. teams have visited.

U.S. intelligence experts will question Iraqis involved in weapons programs, while experts comb sites and analyze samples in the field using mobile labs.

U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq for the first time in four years in late November, soon after the Security Council strengthened inspections and gave Baghdad a final chance to disarm peacefully or face serious consequences. When the council refused to back a war, President Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to disarm and then launched an attack March 20.

Annan ordered all U.N. international staff to leave Baghdad shortly before the war began. The secretary-general stressed the inspectors’ “mandate is still valid” and Blix has said his teams are ready to return on short notice.