Open the gate. we want to come in."
With those words last week at the entrance to one of Iraq's presidential sites, weapons inspectors in Baghdad made it clear they intended to go anywhere they wanted in the renewed hunt for weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein may possess. After a few minutes' hesitation by startled palace guards, the 23 U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were welcomed in--to enter rooms, poke in closets, even inspect a store of marmalade. Iraq was making it just as clear that the regime intended to make a show of its cooperation with the onerous terms of Security Council Resolution 1441. The inspection was largely symbolic for both sides: presidential palaces had been effectively off-limits during the eight years of previous searching, and Saddam's regular refusal to grant access to sites by December 1998 precipitated not only the end of inspections but also four days of intensive U.S. and British bombing.
Iraqi officials say they believe Washington suggested the choice of al-Sajoud palace that day to U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) chief Hans Blix for a different reason. Iraqi officials assert that the Americans directed inspectors to the compound because they thought Saddam was in the area and they wanted to see how accurately U.S. intelligence was tracking his movements. However the site was chosen, Baghdad believes Washington may have wound up with useful information. Since the Tuesday-morning destination was a secret, inspectors were surprised to be greeted within 10 minutes of their arrival by none other than Saddam's personal secretary, Abed Hamid Mohmood, who, according to Iraqi officials, sticks close to his boss. These officials say that only Saddam could have granted the order to open up al-Sajoud.
The mix of motives, both imputed and explicit, illustrates the conflicting notions of what the inspections are all about. Iraq hopes that the process finally exonerates the regime from charges that it retains forbidden weapons of mass destruction, thus possibly paving the way for an end to economic sanctions. At the same time, Baghdad suspects the U.S. of exploiting the situation to spy. The U.S. expects the inspections to prove that Saddam is still hoarding illicit weapons and deserves to be forcibly disarmed. For many members of the U.N., a clean--or cleanish--accounting is the only possible hope for heading off war.
The procedure for arriving at one of those conclusions began last week with visits to 22 suspected sites in Iraq. A preliminary crescendo will be reached once experts have had time to digest the more that 11,000 pages of Iraq's disclosure--the eighth one since the Gulf War ended--of what it has and is trying to obtain in the way of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, plus missiles to deliver them into enemy territory. In theory, if analysts reading the declaration catch Iraq in any lies, that's a "material breach" of the resolution and grounds for "severe consequences." Officials in Washington and London as well as at U.N. headquarters say such a finding will not automatically start the guns firing. But what is or is not in Iraq's declaration, they warn, could mark the point of no return in the Bush Administration's deliberate march toward war.