BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A working team of U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq on Monday for the first time in four years to begin searching for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Iraq says it does not possess such arms, but the United States alleges it retains some and may be producing others.
With the threat of war hanging over the mission, a spokeswoman for the inspectors urged both cooperation from the Iraqis and patience from other countries -- an apparent reference to the United States, which has threatened military action if President Saddam Hussein's government tries to obstruct the inspections.
"We have a huge mandate," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters. "It's going to take time, and we require a lot of patience from our member states as well as transparency and cooperation from the Iraqis."
The contingent of 17 inspectors arrived aboard a white C-130 transport plane from Cyprus along with their cargo of high-tech sensors, computers and other gear.
They will be begin inspections Wednesday, starting with sites that had been visited before the program was suspended in December 1998. U.N. officials said the inspectors will, among other things, check on cameras and other surveillance equipment left by earlier inspectors.
Later, the team will branch out to new or rebuilt sites -- including suspected storage places for chemical weapons which U.S. intelligence alleges are still held by Iraq. Fleming said about 35 additional inspectors will come to Baghdad on Dec. 8 -- the deadline for Iraq to submit a report on all its nuclear, chemical and biological programs, including those said to be for peaceful purposes.
"We come here with, let's say, hope that things will go well this time, and we will get what is required of Iraq," Fleming said. "We're aware that we will be watched, every move. I think the Iraqis are also aware that the entire world is watching."
The roster of U.N. inspectors includes some 300 chemists, biologists, missile and ordnance experts and other specialists of UNMOVIC, and a few dozen engineers and physicists of the U.N. nuclear agency. Between 80 and 100 will be working in Iraq at any one time.
Despite Iraqi denials, the United States is convinced Saddam still retains some weapons of mass destruction and is committed to building more. The United States has urged the inspectors to pursue their search vigorously and intrusively since the new Security Council resolution grants them sweeping powers to go anywhere at any time in search of banned weapons.
"We have no doubt he does have weapons of mass destruction," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of Saddam at a news conference in London. "So let's wait and see what he actually says" in the Dec. 8 report.
Shortly after Blair spoke, the British Parliament voted to support the U.N. resolution on Iraq, while denying a motion to require legislative approval to deploy British troops.
At a U.N. briefing Monday in New York, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said that he warned Iraq that it must provide convincing evidence if it maintains that it has no illegal weapons programs.
He said the inspectors would begin their work as expected on Wednesday and that he urged Iraq during in a meeting there last week to make a complete declaration and "to look into stores and stocks" to ensure that everything is reported.
In Paris, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and French President Jacques Chirac urged Iraq to cooperate fully with the inspectors. "It's the only way to avoid a military conflict in the region," Annan said.
Chirac said Iraq has agreed to recognize the validity of the inspections. If the Iraqis fail to live up to their obligations, Chirac added, "all outcomes are possible."
On Monday, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Iraq would cooperate with the inspectors "to prove to the whole world the evil American plan that aims to dominate the region and serve the Zionist interests, not search for the so-called weapons of mass destruction."
The Iraqi government released a letter Sunday from Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to Annan protesting that parts of the U.N. resolution mandating the inspection mission could give Washington a pretext to attack his country.
Sabri complained in particular that the resolution could turn "inaccurate statements (among) thousands of pages" of mandatory Iraqi reports into a supposed justification for military action.
The United Nations established the inspection program in 1991 after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The inspectors were to verify that Iraq had lived up to commitments to disarm contained in the cease-fire declaration that ended the Gulf War.
U.S. and U.N. officials maintained for years that Iraq sought to block inspectors and prevent them from carrying out their duties. Iraq accused the inspectors of misrepresenting their findings and of being little more than a cover for U.S. espionage. The inspections were suspended amid disputes over U.N. access to sensitive Iraqi sites and Iraqi complaints of American spying.
In seven years' work ending in 1998, U.N. experts destroyed large amounts of chemical and biological weapons and longer-range missiles forbidden to Iraq under the U.N. resolutions. The inspectors also dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program before it could build a bomb.
Also Monday, the Security Council extended the U.N. humnaitarian program in Iraq for just nine days. The program is funded by revenue from Iraqi oil sales to provide Iraqis essential goods.