UN nuclear safeguards inspectors will return to Iraq soon following an official invitation from the new government, the head of the UN nuclear agency said on Tuesday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, told reporters in Cairo that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had asked his agency to return.
The inspectors, who will continue their work to ensure that Iraq adheres to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, will depart as soon as safety arrangements have been made, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said from the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. ElBaradei said they would depart in the next few days.
The inspectors would go to the Tuwaitha facility outside Baghdad, where they will "do an inventory verification on the nuclear material remaining in Iraq," Fleming said. The IAEA is responsible for dismantling Iraq's nuclear program.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stressed that the new inspection was unrelated to the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which had sought evidence of Iraq's supposed chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles to deliver them before the US-led invasion and occupation began last year.
UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002, as the US was building up its forces in the region. In some 700 inspections before they left ahead of the US-led war in March last year, the inspectors reported finding no evidence of revived weapons programs.
After the war, the US barred all UN inspectors from returning, deploying its own inspection teams to search -- again with little result -- for alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The UN Security Council authorized inspectors to dismantle Iraq's weapons programs after the first Gulf War in 1991. Under its resolution, the council must state that Iraq has no banned weapons before UN sanctions can be lifted. The council has put off a decision on the return of UN inspectors under pressure from the US.
The US and British administrations previously had cited Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as one of the reasons for the invasion, but no such weapons have been found.
``The return of UN inspectors to Iraq is an urgent necessity; not to search for weapons of mass destruction but to write the final report about the nonexistence of [such] weapons ... in Iraq, which will enable the lifting of sanctions,'' ElBaradei said in Cairo.
ElBaradei said the coalition forces are not mandated to prove or disprove whether Iraq ever had such weapons.
``The sole mandated authority is the IAEA, and the international inspectors will continue the mission they started before the invasion,'' he said, adding that its mandate does not end until the final report is submitted. Following that report, sanctions imposed on Iraq can be lifted.
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