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Inspectors Prepare for Action

Times Staff Writer

About 50 scientists and engineers will finish a five-week crash course here today in the tricky business of searching for weapons in Iraq.

Little is known by the public about their training, which began behind soundproof doors on the seventh floor of a United Nations complex and then moved to undisclosed locations for hands-on sessions.

The trainees are prohibited from speaking to outsiders, so only the barest outline of their preparation can be gleaned. But the ultimate result will be very public: The inspectors’ reports from Iraq could avert or precipitate a war.

Will these new inspectors be ready for the job? Interviews with former weapons inspectors and instructors suggest: not at first.

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“This is sort of a new profession for most of them,” said a senior U.N. official involved in the training. “They are experts in a certain area, they are doing very technical work, but we ask them to become inspectors.... Only a few of them have previous experience.”

Former inspectors say it may take a few tours of duty to get the hang of the job. The new inspectors would go into Iraq for three to four months at a time.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has said he can have an advance team of inspectors on the ground in Baghdad within 10 days once the U.N. Security Council approves a new resolution on Iraq, which it is expected to do today. The inspectors will have 60 days to submit an initial report to the council.

So far about 260 people, including the current class, have received the introductory five-week training conducted by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, over the past three years. A far smaller group, destined for leadership roles, takes advanced courses in specialized areas.

U.N. officials estimate that fewer than a third of any inspectors sent to Iraq to track down weapons of mass destruction would have previous experience there. Iraqis have accused some countries’ past U.N. inspectors of using tours as an opportunity to spy.

Even for veteran inspectors, the task ahead is far more daunting than it was during the previous inspection regime in the 1990s. From the moment the teams touch down, they will be under extraordinary pressure to make judgments about whether the Iraqis have assembled prohibited weapons systems or the means for making them.

These are hard assessments for experienced inspectors, but for newcomers who don’t know the lay of the land and lack a sixth sense acquired from performing repeated inspections, it is far more difficult.

“As long as you yourself have not been tested in the field, you cannot know what it is like,” said Jacques Baute, the leader of the Iraq team for the International Atomic Energy Agency and a former weapons inspector at the organization that preceded UNMOVIC.

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The atomic agency inspects for nuclear weapons, while UNMOVIC looks for chemical and biological weapons and the missiles used to deliver them.

The task facing weapons inspectors is slow and far from glamorous, and requires skills as diverse as map reading, diplomacy, a knack for psychology and the ability to write a cogent lab report. “The most difficult aspect of the job is the amount of work it requires to be a good inspector,” said the senior U.N. official involved in training.

Former inspectors, most of whom would speak only on condition of anonymity because they work in sensitive positions, emphasized learning the art of seeing both what is there and what is absent. Does everything look the way it should? Is the Iraqi explanation of a facility’s purpose plausible? Is there something that fails to fit?

“For example, if you go into a room and several documents are on the table, are those the drawings the Iraqis are really working on, or did they just burn the real drawings or throw them in the wastebasket?” said a former chief missile inspector who sometimes instructs trainees.

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To answer such questions requires detailed knowledge of, among other things, how specific chemical and biological products are manufactured; the equipment used for making them; the ingredients that need to be on hand; and whether temperature controls are required. But it also requires a feel for the story behind the story.

Inspectors are drawn from the defense industry, aerospace companies, chemical and pesticide manufacturers and engineering. Some are academics; others work for government or have private-sector jobs.

Baute says his first inspection was eye-opening: “My first inspection was a document search. But you don’t just do the search in offices and in file. You open drawers, cupboards; you check to see if the ceiling is solid. These are not things that I would have expected to be doing.”

Inspectors must scrutinize each site, testing Iraqi claims about its use against their own observations.

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In the mid-1990s, inspectors went to a plant where they suspected biological weapons were being manufactured. The Iraqis told them the facility was used only to make a single-cell protein for animal feed, a legitimate use.

“But then we see that it’s way off in the desert, it’s surrounded by high walls, it’s spread over several kilometers -- and we start investigating it,” said the senior U.N. official involved in the UNMOVIC training.

The site, Al Hakam, turned out to be the main installation where the Iraqis were producing anthrax, using the same equipment needed to make single-cell proteins.

“There wasn’t one smoking gun, but a whole list of factors that were inconsistent,” said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for UNMOVIC.

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The plant was demolished in 1996.

The key is follow-through. Sometimes, however, inspectors’ worst suspicions are allayed by evidence -- or a lack of it. In one instance, nuclear inspectors found traces of iodine-131, a byproduct of nuclear fission when found with other fission byproducts. But close scrutiny and testing failed to detect any such byproducts. On its own, iodine-131 has a legitimate medical use -- treating people with thyroid problems.

A crucial skill is the ability to interview Iraqi personnel. Inspectors must be polite but persistent, canny but straightforward.

“Not every inspector should conduct interviews,” said one senior inspector. “Some are better at analyzing data. Just because you’re the best missile expert doesn’t mean you’ll be the best missile inspector.”

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Hermann Strasser, a former biological weapons inspector from Austria with expertise in pesticides, recalled interviewing a plant manager about the use of certain equipment.

“They are experts at baffling you,” he recalled. “First I got some information; I realized there was something wrong, so I asked some more questions; then I got a second story, then a third story, then a fourth story. The truth may be somewhere, but you don’t know which story to trust. The Iraqis would spend an hour telling you a story and then say, ‘Is that fine now?’ ”

When Strasser would raise a problem in an explanation, they would say, “ ‘Oh, I must have forgotten something,’ ” he said.

A look at the curriculum for the inspectors-in-training hints at the range of skills needed. In addition to an introduction to the legal rights of inspectors, all trainees attend lectures on Iraq’s history and political situation, the effects of a decade of U.N. sanctions on the Iraqi people, and cultural sensitivity.

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Those classes take just the first two weeks. In the third week, trainees spend three days with an Austrian military division that specializes in chemical, biological and nuclear safety. They learn how to use and work in protective gear and how to detect symptoms of exposure to toxins, according to Ute Axmann, an Austrian army spokeswoman.

Inspectors also must master the material gleaned from past inspections.

Then they split into groups, depending on their expertise. The drill includes two practical exercises: an analysis of documents taken during an investigation and a mock inspection. The host country typically makes a chemical plant and a biological laboratory available for the run-through, with former weapons inspectors playing the Iraqis.

The mock Iraqis try to fluster trainees by refusing to let them take photographs or requiring that they write a letter saying why they need to see the facility. “They have to know their rights,” said UNMOVIC spokesman Buchanan. They are allowed to take photographs and do not have to provide written documentation of why they are doing an inspection.

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But some lessons can’t be learned in the classroom.

“They have been briefed on everything ... but what is not achieved is that they are not faced with the stress of real life,” said one former inspector. “The exam will be the real inspection.”


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