In the coming weeks, the only person standing between the United States and war with Iraq could be chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.
The bespectacled career diplomat and bureaucrat is a former Swedish foreign minister who was lured out of retirement to head the new United Nations inspections commission. Though he previously spent 16 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, some today worry that he's about to embark on Mission Impossible. Saddam Hussein boasts a track record of hiding and deceiving - and Washington seems bent on his removal regardless of what the weapons inspectors accomplish.
And Mr. Blix does not inspire absolute confidence, say some analysts.
His past, they note, indicates he may be averse to ruffling feathers in Baghdad, or among the permanent members of the UN Security Council who resist America's disarm-or-else approach.
"He has a long history of shrinking away from confrontations," says Kelly Motz, a research associate for the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "He'll definitely be more worried about the feelings of the Iraqis than his predecessors were."
It was Blix who was head of the IAEA in 1990 when it gave Iraq a clean bill of health, only to be humiliated after the Gulf War when Baghdad's secret nuclear program was uncovered.
For now, at least, Blix is embracing the tough talk of the UN Security Council's most influential member, the United States, although officially, he takes marching orders from the entire 15- member Security Council.
Meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration brass Friday, Blix agreed that Iraq must issue a full declaration of any existing biological, chemical, and nuclear programs. This would establish a crucial benchmark: If any lies are detected later, this "noncompliance" would justify military action, analysts say.
While in Washington, Blix also appeared to endorse US threats of "consequences" for noncompliance. "I think it is clear that there has to be constant pressure," he told reporters. And on Thursday, after briefing the Security Council, Blix agreed not to follow through on his plan to send an advance team of inspectors to Iraq in mid-October, and said inspections themselves would not resume without a new resolution. "We are in [the Council's] hands," Blix told the press after the meeting. "It would be an awkward situation if we were already working there and were given a new directive."
This, though, came a few days after Blix held controversial talks in Vienna with Iraqi officials. Blix - operating under 1998 and '99 UN agreements now viewed by many as too lenient - was there to discuss the logistics of returning inspectors after a four-year hiatus. But Iraqi negotiators spun a PR victory out of the meeting, proclaiming all aspects of inspections resolved - and declaring that a 1998 agreement to keep eight so-called "presidential sites" off- limits had been left intact. Some supporters promptly praised Baghdad for its "show of good faith."
But Powell called a quick press conference in Washington, in time for the evening news, to clarify that no deal had been struck. He said the contentious issue of inspecting eight presidential sites - often referred to misleadingly as "palaces," but which total some 30 square miles and contain 1,100 buildings - would be revised and tightened in the new resolution.
Some analysts faulted Blix for not awaiting a new UN mandate before resuming talks with Iraq.
"It makes Iraq think that Blix is not tight with America and Britain, and gives them hope they can manipulate him and the inspectors to split the Security Council," says David Albright, president of the …