By Erik Leklem
On April 4, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) completed its first round of "Special Group" inspections at eight presidential sites in Iraq that had previously been declared off-limits by Baghdad. This restriction on access, opposed by the United States and Britain, subsequently led to the largest military buildup in the region since the Persian Gulf War. Military conflict over the issue was averted by a February 23 diplomatic accord brokered by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (See ACT, January/February.)
After the Annan agreement was reached, President Bill Clinton vowed to maintain an increased U.S. military presence in the gulf until Iraqi compliance with the Special Group inspections and relevant Security Council resolutions is assured.
The completion of the Special Group inspections, so-called due to the addition of diplomatic observers, was the second major test of Annan's efforts and Iraqi compliance with the agreement. The initial test of unfettered access for UNSCOM, as stipulated in the accord, was successfully passed with a series of short-notice, regular inspections conducted during the second week of March at several sensitive locations in Iraq, including a first-ever visit to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
The Special Group inspection mission, held March 25-April 4, included 20 diplomatic observers and 88 UNSCOM personnel. Despite previous Iraqi objections to the role of U.S. personnel in UNSCOM inspections, an American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, was assigned to the diplomatic contingent of the Special Group and an American official, Charles Duelfer, deputy chairman of the Commission, led the UNSCOM component.
Although a formal report on the Special Group inspections is not due until mid*April, an UNSCOM official said the visits provided a physical assessment of the presidential sites and enabled inspectors to gauge whether the facilities in question could be used as either storage or production facilities for illicit weapons. UNSCOM did not expect to make any major discoveries in the first round of visits the official said, and he reserved further comment until after Ambassador Richard Butler, executive chairman of UNSCOM, transmitted the inspection report to the Security Council.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment specifically on the matter, other than to say the United States understood that the Special Group inspections were completed without significant incident and that the administration looked forward to Butler's report.
In a separate review of Iraqi compliance, a technical evaluation meeting (TEM) on Iraq's biological weapons (BW) program, comprised of UNSCOM officials, independent experts and Iraqi representatives, was held in Vienna March 20-27. The BW TEM (a report on which is forthcoming), was the third such meeting held in the last two months, following a TEM on special warheads and one on the chemical agent VX.
These meetings were designed to accelerate UNSCOM's verification of Iraqi compliance with UN Security Council resolutions requiring the destruction of its nuclear, chemical and bilogical weapons and means of delivery. A follow-up TEM on special warheads is scheduled tentatively for late April and another TEM on VX was agreed to, though a date was not set.