More than three dozen U.N. weapons inspectors led by a controversial former U.S. Marine landed in Baghdad on Thursday, setting up what could be the first test of the new inspection procedures negotiated by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
American Scott Ritter's team, reportedly including 40 to 50 inspectors, specializes in exposing Iraq's efforts to conceal illegal weapons programs. Baghdad's refusal in January to cooperate with Ritter's previous inspection trip helped trigger the recent confrontation that nearly led to warfare between the United States and Iraq.
The U.S. and Britain have kept a strong military force in the Persian Gulf and have threatened to use it against Iraq if its government refuses to honor a Feb. 22 agreement with Annan to cooperate fully with the inspectors.
It was not immediately clear if Ritter's inspectors will try to enter any of the eight "presidential compounds" that were the subject of Annan's negotiations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Detailed procedures for inspecting those sites were still being worked out at U.N. headquarters here Thursday. They call for the inspectors to be accompanied by diplomats during visits to the presidential sites, and U.N. officials said it is not certain that the logistics of the new system will be completed before Ritter's team leaves Iraq.
Ritter is based in New York, and he and his inspectors make periodic trips to Iraq.
The sensitive and invasive nature of Ritter's investigations and what U.N. administrators admit is his confrontational style have made him a special target of Iraqi complaints.
Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz has accused Ritter of spying for the United States, an allegation denied by Ritter, the U.S. and the U.N. Even if Ritter's inspectors do not seek to enter presidential compounds, they are likely to show up at other places that the Iraqis consider sensitive, such as intelligence sites.
On his January trip, Ritter was investigating reports by Iraqi opposition groups that Baghdad had tested chemical weapons on prisoners during the mid-1990s. Aziz vehemently denied that Iraq had conducted any human experimentation. Because the Iraqis refused to fully cooperate, Ritter's probe of the charge was not completed.
Iraqi officials downplayed Ritter's arrival.
The official Iraqi news agency quoted Maj. Gen. Mohammed Amin, a principal liaison with the inspectors, as saying Ritter's team was "expected to undertake surprise visits to a number of sensitive sites."
Alan Dacey, a U.N. spokesman in Baghdad, said Ritter had arrived for a "normal inspection."
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council cautioned Baghdad that it will face the "severest consequences" if it fails to adhere to the pact signed with Annan. President Clinton said the U.S. is prepared to carry out a substantial air attack on Iraq if the agreement breaks down.
In a related matter, Annan on Thursday announced, as expected, the appointment of former Indian diplomat Prakash Shah as his special representative in Baghdad.
In a letter to the Security Council, Annan said Shah's appointment reflected the "need for improved lines of communication between the government of Iraq and my office in order to help avert . . . crises threatening to undermine international peace and security."