WASHINGTON -- It's hard to imagine anyone whose words are more subject to international scrutiny these days than Hans Blix, chief of the U.N. team that began searching for forbidden weapons in Iraq last week.
After all, his judgments about what Iraq has and doesn't have could well decide whether there will be another war with Iraq, 12 years after the first one.
When the United Nations authorized the inspection team in 1999, Blix's fellow Swede Rolf Ekeus was the Clinton administration's first choice to lead it. But other members of the U.N. Security Council believed Ekeus had been too confrontational toward Iraq during an earlier U.N. inspection effort. Blix emerged as the compromise choice.
U.S. critics worry that the retired international law expert and collector of Oriental rugs lacks the steely determination required to expose the hidden weapons that the Bush administration is convinced President Saddam Hussein possesses.
The U.N. inspectors Blix oversees are on the lookout for chemical and biological weapons. Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, is searching for evidence of nuclear weapons programs.
Secretary of State Colin Powell says he has confidence in both. ''They are experts in this field and they know what the Iraqis have done in the past,'' Powell told NPR News last week.
''They know how the Iraqis have deceived previous inspection regimes. And I think that both of these gentlemen want to do the best job they can because the whole world is watching this and so I think they'll be aggressive.''
Of the two, Blix is receiving most of the attention, partly because of his long experience with Iraq. Blix ran the IAEA for 16 years and was considered to be tougher on North Korea than on Iraq.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, is worried that Blix will preside over a whitewash. He cites Blix's record at IAEA.
''As late as 1990, the same year Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mr. Blix's inspectors rated Iraq's cooperation as 'exemplary.' But all the while Saddam was running a vast A-bomb program under their very noses,'' Milhollin wrote last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
He said some of the nuclear weapons production activities went on at the same places that were being inspected, and were hidden with the help of an Iraqi official who was himself a former IAEA inspector. The weapons infrastructure was uncovered and destroyed by U.N. inspectors years ago.
The Bush administration says the more intrusive inspections contemplated under the latest U.N. Security Council resolution make it more difficult for Saddam to hide forbidden weapons.
But Blix seems doubtful about one innovation in the new inspection regime: giving the U.N. monitors the authority to interview Iraqis and their families outside the country and away from Iraqi government observers.
''There would be great practical difficulties in using such authority, unless there was cooperation by the Iraqi side,'' Blix told the council in October. The comment was not reassuring to U.S. officials.
The U.N. teams must report by late January on their progress in locating and destroying any Iraqi weapons forbidden under U.N. resolutions.
If they report full Iraqi cooperation and disarmament, U.N. resolutions call for the Security Council to consider lifting economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. If they report Iraqi resistance, the council may debate military action to disarm Iraq.
After the first week of inspections, Bush seems doubtful the Iraqis will tell much to Blix's team. ''So far, the signs are not encouraging,'' Bush said Monday.
Blix said he and ElBaradei don't see the issue of war vs. peace as hinging on the reports they issue.
''Our job is to report, and the decision whether there is war or peace or reaction -- that is for the council and its members,'' Blix says.
He also says he is not going to let Washington push him around. ''We're in nobody's pockets,'' he says.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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