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UN Weapons Inspectors Begin Work in Iraq - 2002-11-19

On their first full day of work, the advance team of U.N. weapons inspectors met with top Iraqi officials in Baghdad to discuss a timetable for their work. The inspection process will be detailed and difficult, but the inspectors are armed with sophisticated equipment, a U.N. Security Council mandate, and a large amount of information.

The first phase of the inspection process is logistical.

Technicians are setting up communications equipment. A laboratory that was left behind when inspectors were last in Baghdad four years ago is being refurbished. Air and ground transportation is being arranged for the more than 100 inspectors expected to be in Iraq by the end of December. And throughout the process, there will be daily planning meetings between the inspection team leaders and Iraqi officials.

Formal inspections are to begin November 27 and the weapons inspectors will be using a wide array of information and equipment in order to find out whether Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction.

In their possession are inventories of Iraqi purchases, satellite photographs, state-of-the-art detection equipment, and information obtained by the Central Intelligence Agency including reports that Iraq tried to obtain aluminum tubes that might be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

The inspectors also have information obtained from Iraqi defectors and the authority to conduct surprise searches anywhere at any time. The new U.N. Security Council resolution also gives the inspectors the right to take potential witnesses out of the country for questioning.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, was quoted as saying the inspectors "have lots of information about where to go."

The inspectors reportedly have a list of as many as 800 potential inspection sites that are possibly associated with the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological.

Iraq insists it has no such weapons and has abandoned any effort to develop them.

When the inspectors were last in Iraq four years ago they found many such sites, including extensive facilities to develop atomic bombs. And although the sites were destroyed by the inspectors, satellite photos reportedly suggest there has been some rebuilding at one of the sites near Baghdad.

The inspectors also uncovered long-range missiles during their mission in the 1990s and reported that they were able to destroy all but two of the missiles that could reach beyond the U.N. imposed limit of 145 kilometers.

In 1998, inspectors also destroyed several tons of chemical agents in Iraq and the laboratories that were used to develop them.

But despite sophisticated equipment, background information, and a Security Council resolution that affords the inspectors complete access in Iraq, experts say their task will still be difficult.

Published reports have suggested that Iraq is hiding its biological weapons program in mobile labs that allegedly move throughout Iraq. There are also reports of extensive underground storage sites that would evade satellite detection.

The inspection process is expected to be painstaking because the inspectors say any suspicion will lead to an on-site investigation. But the inspectors say they are optimistic of accomplishing their mission as long as Iraq cooperates.

The inspection team is scheduled to submit its first report to the Security Council in late January.