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Saturday, 4 May, 2002, 00:44 GMT 01:44 UK
Analysis: UN and Iraq 'talk shop'
UN-Iraq meeting
First technical discussions since 1998
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Greg Barrow
By Greg Barrow
BBC correspondent at the United Nations

The way that officials described it, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and the Iraqi Foreign Minister could have been chatting about their hobbies during the latest round of discussions aimed at getting UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

"They have really been able to talk shop," one UN official said, as if the two men had spent the past three days in New York exchanging tips about fly-fishing or bird-watching.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri
Iraq sought clarifications about how a future arms inspection might work
Of course, this meeting was much more serious, and when diplomats "talk shop", it means they are getting to the nub of things. In this case, Iraq's failure to implement UN resolutions passed at the end of the Gulf War, more than a decade ago.

Although it was the meeting between Kofi Annan and Naji Sabri that grabbed the headlines, the more productive discussions appeared to have taken place between UN weapons experts and their Iraqi counterparts.

The chief UN inspector, Hans Blix, who heads the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission - known as UNMOVIC - led these technical talks, alongside Mohamed El Baradei, who is the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

More palatable option

According to Mr Annan, their discussions with the Iraqi delegation were the first to take place at a technical level since UN weapons inspectors last left Iraq in December 1998.

This care and attention to detail could be overtaken by events if the US decides to act on its threat to intervene militarily in Iraq

The Iraqis are said to have sought clarifications from Mr Blix, and Mr El Baradei, about how any future weapons inspection team might work if it was allowed to return to Iraq.

One of the problems with the previous UN weapons inspection team - which was known as UNSCOM - was that the Iraqis felt it was staffed by spies for the US Government, and had deliberately tried to provoke Baghdad by mounting needlessly aggressive inspection missions.

UN officials say great care has been taken to make UNMOVIC a much more palatable organisation for the Iraqis to deal with.

US threat

Unlike UNSCOM which was staffed by people selected and paid for by governments, all of UNMOVIC's staff members are international civil servants on the payroll of the UN.

In addition, they have undergone high-level technical training, and have been briefed on how to avoid offending the cultural sensitivities of the Iraqi people.

This care and attention to detail could, however, be overtaken by events if the US administration decides to act on its threat to intervene militarily in Iraq.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to destroy Iraq's weapons capability, and possibly topple the government of President Saddam Hussein.

Although US military action is not imminent, Mr Annan said the threat was clearly preying on the minds of the Iraqi delegation.

He said they wanted an answer to the question of whether allowing UN weapons inspectors back in would have any bearing on the US Government's talk about what Mr Annan called "regime change" in Iraq.

See also:

03 May 02 | Middle East
Iraq-UN weapons talks end
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bush 'still undecided' on Iraq
28 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq celebrates Saddam birthday
22 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq 'moving up anti-aircraft missiles'
19 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN condemns Iraq on human rights
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Iraq vows to defy Western 'enemy'
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