Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector, was a busy man Thursday, if his datebook was any indication.
Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, stopped by Blix's 31st-floor corner office to chat. So did several Arab foreign ministers. John Wolf, the U.S. undersecretary of State who oversees nonproliferation issues, came by. So did a Canadian delegation.
On Wednesday, Blix juggled phone calls from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security advisor; and Mohammed Douri, Iraq's ambassador. He has met diplomats in recent days from at least seven other countries and was too busy to see visitors from three more. He has had lunch with John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador, at a nearby Basque restaurant.
Blix's popularity is no surprise. He will deliver a critical report today to the bitterly divided Security Council on Iraq's compliance with U.N. disarmament demands. His words -- even his tone -- may well determine whether the Bush administration can win the nine council votes it needs for a resolution to authorize a war against Saddam Hussein's regime.
Blix says he isn't swayed by all the diplomatic courting, cajoling and arm-twisting. Blix said he reports only facts and doesn't tailor his reports to please either those who are willing to go to war or those who aren't. "I am not going to make political judgments," Blix told reporters here Wednesday. "I can see some people are irritated by that."
But war against Iraq would mean "serious failure" for the U.N. disarmament system, Blix said. And that would mean failure for Blix, who has devoted the last two decades to using peaceful means to reduce the world's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Partly as a result, even some of Blix's longtime supporters are questioning whether the 74-year-old Swedish diplomat has begun shading his comments in an effort to prolong inspections in Iraq and stave off war.
"He's getting into the peace camp," said David Albright, a former U.N. inspector in Iraq and longtime Blix ally. He said Blix has become an "advocate" of extending inspections. "He's begun to undermine his own credibility."
A British diplomat agreed.
"Blix's entire career has been in disarmament," he said. "Of course he wants to see inspections succeed. He wants more time to make them work. But we can't just sit by with crossed fingers, hoping that [the inspectors will] turn up something."
Bush administration officials are sharper in their criticism. They were furious that Blix this week described Iraq's destruction of 28 Al-Samoud 2 missiles as "real disarmament." Blix has ordered Iraq to destroy more than 100 missiles because they violate U.N. requirements.
The Iraqi actions, countered a U.S. official, were "drips in the ocean, not disarmament.... This is a tiny part of a huge arsenal."
Administration officials were also upset when Blix publicly challenged Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's interpretation of satellite photos and other U.S. intelligence after Powell presented the material to the Security Council last month.
U.N. inspectors have been unable to confirm most of Powell's charges, including his claim that Iraqi spies obtain advance notice of searches and secretly move weapons and other materials before inspectors arrive.
"I think Dr. Blix took umbrage at the suggestion that Iraq knows in advance of the inspections," said Ron Cleminson, a Canadian diplomat who serves on the 16-member board that oversees the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission that Blix heads. "Because the teams themselves don't know in advance."
Powell repeated many of his charges in a speech Wednesday in Washington, adding that new U.S. intelligence shows Iraq is secretly building new ballistic missiles while it publicly destroys others.
That too came as news to Blix. U.S. officials have not given the inspectors specific information to verify that charge, an aide said.
"I believe they're using what we're giving them," a U.S. intelligence official said. "But Saddam is spending a lot of time moving stuff around. And our insights into what he's got and where are not perfect. It's a big country."
Robert J. Einhorn, former head of disarmament at the State Department, said the White House has in effect decided that the inspections are irrelevant, whatever Blix tells the council today.
"The account is closed," Einhorn said. "The administration is not going to give the inspectors new leads. As far as they're concerned, the job is done."
Einhorn said Blix has "done a very, very hard job very skillfully.... Both sides feel he's been balanced to a fault. That is, both sides feel if he were really honest he would lean more to their side, but that he doesn't to appear to be fair to the other. And that's frustrating everybody."
Rolf Ekeus, who headed U.N. inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1997, said Blix faces far more intense pressure than he ever did. "The result is people put so much more political emphasis on what he says," Ekeus said.
But Ekeus said Blix has contributed to the problem by releasing details of his reports -- as he did this week -- before he meets with the council. "Now it is a circus where he informs us in advance of what is happening," he said.
For his part, Blix said that he has a "thick skin" and that the complaints don't affect him. He said he was "amazed" to read press accounts that Rice had "admonished" him in a meeting last month. "She didn't admonish me. It was a very civilized conversation."
That would be par for Blix, a polished, polite and utterly unflappable diplomat.
"I've never heard him raise his voice," said Ewen Buchanan, the public information officer for the U.N. inspectors.
Blix is an unlikely celebrity. He wears brown shoes, suits and ties. He likes to walk to work from his Upper East Side apartment and cheerfully complies when New Yorkers stop him to ask for an autograph. He was amused when a fan's Web site posted phony pictures of him as a race car driver.
In reality, Blix likes to cook. He phones his wife, Eva Kettis, back home in Sweden once or twice a day. He rarely watches TV but tuned in last week for Dan Rather's hourlong interview with Saddam Hussein. He has never met the Iraqi leader.
Blix's sudden fame also has a downside. After what he called several "minor" threats, he was assigned a team of U.N. bodyguards six weeks ago. His mail gets special handling, with suspicious letters and packages sent to a facility in Florida for irradiation to ensure they don't contain anthrax or other deadly substances.
For now, Blix has extended his U.N. contract to the end of June. He was at his desk Thursday night, fine-tuning his report before a fabulous bird's-eye view of the midtown Manhattan skyline. Four large satellite pictures of downtown Baghdad, which hang on his walls, are a grim reminder of what U.S. pilots may soon face.
"Right now, it looks very difficult, I must say," Blix said. "But all we can do in this world is do one's best."
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the U.N. contributed to this report.