War, Peace Not in Hands of Inspectors, Blix Says
What happens next in Iraq may rest on the gray-suited shoulders of a 74-year-old Swede who insists that his job is simply looking for weapons and reporting the facts. But the facts he chooses to report to the Security Council will help determine whether there will be peace or war.
The world will be watching when chief weapons inspector Hans Blix arrives in Baghdad on Monday with an advance team of inspectors, who are scheduled to resume their work Nov. 27, almost a month earlier than required. Their first task will be to clean the pigeon droppings out of their old center of operations. The birds have been the only occupants since the U.N. inspection team withdrew four years ago.
Then the work will get even messier: The inspectors must scour a country the size of California for chemical and biological arms that are suspected to be in underground and mobile labs and for documents that could be contained on easily hidden CD-ROMs in people’s homes.
A team of atomic scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency will work in tandem with Blix and his staff to hunt for nuclear weapons programs -- a slightly easier task because of the size of the equipment required and the radiation that would be emitted.
Blix’s sometimes rumpled appearance belies a precise and scholarly mind, and he is known to be very careful, often legalistic, but quietly independent.
“He may look like he’s nice, but he can be tough,” said Christer Ahlstroem, deputy director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Facing potential obstruction from Iraqi officials, and sniping from hawks in Washington who see inspections as a quagmire, Blix is philosophical.
“It’s certainly a significant job that we have, and we would like to go through it in such a way that war could be avoided,” Blix said Friday at a news conference here.
“However,” he insisted, “war and peace are not in our hands.”
That responsibility lies with the Security Council -- and Iraq, he said.
One of the most important moments for Iraq, Blix said Friday, will come by Dec. 8, when Baghdad must make a complete declaration of its missile and weapons capabilities. As recently as Wednesday, Iraq insisted that it has no weapons of mass destruction.
But ever the diplomat, Blix says Iraqi officials still have some time to find something they might have overlooked.
“The Iraqi declaration is a very important document, and we hope that they take it very seriously,” he said.
Blix said he hopes that countries with intelligence about any violation will share it with his team to investigate “before it becomes a breach” of the U.N. resolution passed last week. The resolution gives the inspectors the right to search mosques, presidential sites, individuals’ homes, “anywhere, any time, at night, during the holidays,” he said. “There are no sanctuaries.”
In previous inspections, tricks to obstruct inspectors have ranged from closing bridges and roads to simply shooting at the monitors. This time, Blix expects better cooperation.
“One flat tire is one thing,” he said. “If they have four flat tires on the way out, delaying us much more, then it may be a different thing.... I think we will have to use our common sense in judging if something is a way of preventing us, of hindering us, in the inspection or if it is not.”
If he sounds like a lawyer, it’s because he is. Born in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1928, Blix studied at Columbia University and Cambridge University and taught international law at Stockholm University. He joined the foreign service and became Sweden’s foreign minister in 1978. In 1981, he became director general of the IAEA in Vienna, a post he held until his retirement in 1997.
Blix could still be hiking in the Swedish mountains with his wife, Eva, instead of taking a job that is like rolling a boulder up a hill. But above all, he is a man of duty. He did not volunteer for this post, but when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked him -- in desperation -- to take it, he felt he had to say yes.
In January 2000, after inspectors had been kept out of Iraq for more than a year, the secretary-general had considered nearly 25 candidates before settling on an eminent Swede with disarmament experience: Rolf Ekeus. After Russia and France vetoed Ekeus, Annan called Blix out of retirement. Blix and his wife were on a voyage to Antarctica.
“I was taken out of the refrigerator, literally,” he jokes.
Blix gained his experience in the 16 years he headed the IAEA -- a performance that earned him mixed reviews. Critics say that the agency missed Iraq’s nuclear buildup in the 1980s and that only in 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, did more aggressive inspectors at a nuclear power site catch scientists trying to enrich uranium.
“Blix was fooled for years,” said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security think tank in Washington, who worked closely with the IAEA when Blix led it. “He ran a toothless agency, and despite many reports that Iraq had a nuclear program, they didn’t do anything.... The IAEA just got declarations and checked them.”
Blix concedes the point, saying that the international rules that mandated nuclear inspections at the time didn’t provide for intrusive investigations. Thanks in part to his later efforts, the ground rules for inspection are tougher.
“We learned our lesson,” he said.
To many of his critics, Blix redeemed himself in North Korea. In 1992, despite being told by agency inspectors that the North was clean, he assembled his own team and caught scientists trying to make nuclear weapons fuel.
“His actions almost created a war,” Albright said. The U.S. had to step in and defuse the crisis. “Despite the cost to him, he did it. People inside were furious.”
Some critics -- notably, hawks in Washington who never wanted to go through the U.N. in the first place -- think that Blix is not the man for the job.
After several visits to the White House this year, he is keenly sensitive to the depth of skepticism in Washington about the effectiveness of sanctions -- and the pressure on him to provide an answer Washington wants to hear.
Blix, however, says he has nothing to lose by doing the right thing -- even if it takes longer than some would like.
“I have my career behind me,” he said with a laugh.
“Effective inspection is the challenge, to carry it out on the ground in the best possible manner under the circumstances, and correct reporting,” Blix said. “We are not overstating our capacity, but nor do we underestimate it.”
Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna and Tyler Marshall at the United Nations contributed to this report.