Escalating their hunt, U.N. weapons experts in Iraq used helicopters for the first time Tuesday to conduct an inspection, swooping down on a sprawling fertilizer plant near the Syrian border to search for evidence that the government has restarted efforts to develop chemical weapons.
The beginning of air transport for the U.N. team heightened the drama, speed and intrusiveness of the inspections, which have shifted into high gear as the experts face a Jan. 27 deadline to deliver a progress report to the Security Council.
U.N. officials hope the helicopters will allow inspectors to expand their reach and arrive at sites with little advance notice. Tuesday's trip, to the Qaim State Company for Phosphates, a vast complex of smokestacks, chemical tanks and industrial machinery set in a barren moonscape, took about two hours. When nuclear inspectors visited last month, they had to drive six hours from Baghdad.
Shaving travel time is crucial to increasing the element of surprise -- reducing chances that potentially incriminating evidence could be concealed, spirited away or destroyed, according to U.N. officials and analysts.
Inspectors visited a total of 10 sites Tuesday, including Al Bakr Air Base, 60 miles north of Baghdad; the Kubaisa Cement Factory, 120 miles west of the capital; and the Saddam Center for Cancer and Medical Genetics in Baghdad. Several sites related to missile production and testing were also visited.