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UN Inspectors Return to Iraq After 4 Year Hiatus - 2002-11-18

United Nations weapons inspectors are back in Iraq after a four year absence to resume searches for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Inspectors led by Swedish diplomat Hans Blix arrived Monday, even as Washington was accusing Baghdad of already being in material breach of the Security Council resolution authorizing the inspections, by firing on U.S. and British military aircraft.

Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix flew into Baghdad aboard a U.N. plane to begin what could be Iraq's last chance to avoid war. "We have come here for one single reason and that is because the world wants to have assurances that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Mr. Blix said.

Baghdad has already declared it has no such weapons, but the United States and Britain insist it does. After setting up offices and secure communications, U.N. inspectors will begin new searches as early as next week amid what chief inspector Blix describes as a tense situation.

"We are here to do a job and we will do that professionally and I hope competently," Mr. Blixs said.

Iraq is being given until December eighth to provide a full listing of any such banned weapons it may still have even though it has already declared all of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed.

In what could prove to be an early test of Iraq's willingness to cooperate, U.S. officials say allied warplanes patrolling the country's northern no fly zone came under threat Monday from Iraqi ground fire for the second consecutive day.

U.S. military spokeswoman Shannon Collins said, "We responded in self-defense to the Iraqi attacks by dropping precision-guided munitions on elements of the Iraqi integrated air defense system."

All coalition aircraft returned safely to bases in Turkey. But it marked the second time since Friday that the Bush administration warned Baghdad's actions could amount to a material breach of its new obligations under a U.N. resolution approved earlier this month - a potential trigger for a U.S. led attack.

At this point though, a White House spokesman is stopping short of saying the administration plans to take the matter to the Security Council.