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 Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 19:04 GMT
What next for the inspectors?
Inspectors approach the al-Iskandariyah compound south of Baghdad
Will Washington give the teams the time they need?

So far, so good. That has been the message from United Nations officials about the early work of the advance team of weapons inspectors that returned to Iraq last month.

However, diplomats here have been far more circumspect.

''We see these early inspections as something of a warm-up exercise,'' said one Western official.

''After four years away, they're not match-fit and they need a bit of practice.''

Cat and mouse

The real work begins now that the Iraqi declaration has been handed over to the UN.

Stored machinery at the Tawaitha facility south of Baghdad
The UN hopes the dossier will replace outdated information on facilities

Previously, the inspectors were working in something of a vacuum, using old and possibly outdated intelligence from previous inspection missions and what little information UN member states decided to share with them.

The declaration gives the inspectors an account in Iraq's own words of its weapons programmes and of industrial facilities that could have a dual military and civilian use.

Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the chief UN weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, says the declaration is an important tool that will allow the inspection teams inside Iraq to return to the task they took on in the aftermath of the Gulf War, more than a decade ago.

''The whole idea has been one of declaration and verification,'' Mr Buchanan says.

''The new UN resolution brings us back to that point and I think that's important for us... because what happened towards the end of Unscom's (UN Special Commission) time was not so much declaration and verification, but more of a case of cat and mouse.''

We are in nobody's pocket

Dr Hans Blix

What this means in practice is that the UN teams will work from information in the Iraqi declaration, and by careful inspection verify whether it matches the reality on the ground.

Before it left Iraq in 1998, the last team of UN inspectors succeeded in accounting for and disabling far more Iraqi weapons than were destroyed by military action in the first Gulf War.

The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic), under Dr Blix, hopes to pick up where they left off.

The question is whether Washington has the patience to allow this process to play itself out over the coming weeks and possibly months.

Military window

Unmovic and Dr Blix have been the subject of carefully co-ordinated attacks in the US media.

Unnamed sources in the administration of President George W Bush are often quoted questioning Dr Blix's ability to carry out the monumental task of disarming a country the size of Iraq.

Dr Hans Blix
Some US critics say the disarmament task is too big for Dr Blix

So far, Dr Blix has brushed off these attacks.

''I have not seen any criticism from the US Government,'' he said on Friday.

He placed the onus on countries like the United States to assist him by providing the kind of sophisticated intelligence that could expose any Iraqi lies in their declaration.

''We want to have recommendations from member governments - what they want us to do - and we listen to all of them,'' he said. ''We are in nobody's pocket.''

Diplomats now expect pressure to mount from the Pentagon and the more hawkish wing of the Bush administration.

There are many in Washington who, long before the inspectors returned, argued against a diplomatic approach to disarming Iraq.

Their voices are likely to grow louder if Dr Blix and his team appear to be getting tangled up in a new web of Iraqi deception.

The message from Washington has been that no decision has yet been made about military intervention.

While that may be the case, the window of opportunity for US military intervention will close if inspections look like they are spinning into the summer months, when climate becomes a critical factor.

  The BBC's David Shukman
"For the inspectors the declaration could provide useful clues"

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07 Dec 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
05 Dec 02 | Middle East
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