A Soft-Spoken Swede Who Can Trigger War

UNITED NATIONS -- Summoned out of retirement on a cruise to Antarctica, Hans Blix, who led UN inspectors to Baghdad on Monday to search for weapons of mass destruction, is a man whose word could make the difference between war and peace in Iraq.

As the chief United Nations weapons inspector, the 74-year-old Swede will have to report on whether Iraq meets UN Security Council demands on disclosing its alleged chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs.

The United States has warned that if Iraq fails the UN test, American forces will go to war to disarm President Saddam Hussein.

"The situation is tense at the moment but there is a new opportunity and we are here to provide inspection which is credible," he said after landing in Baghdad with a team of about 30, the first UN arms inspectors to visit in four years.

Tough and calm, Blix is a stickler for rules and walks a fine line between Washington's drumbeat of war and the natural UN inclination to turn swords into plowshares.

"I think it is clear that there has to be constant pressure to ... [get] the Iraqis to comply," he has said. "There was an erosion over the years in the past. So that has to be there."

At the same time, Blix strives for neutrality and has frowned on U.S. proposals that it name inspectors for his teams or send troops to open roads for them.

"We have been trying from the very outset to have a balanced position," he said in a recent interview.

A lawyer with two doctoral degrees, Blix studied at Columbia University in the United States and Cambridge University in England, and taught international law at Stockholm University. He joined the foreign service and was Sweden's foreign minister in 1978.

In 1981, he became director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency for the next 16 years. But his retirement in 1997, which included hiking above the tree line in the Swedish mountains, did not last long.

Blix and his wife Eva, then a Swedish government adviser on Arctic and Antarctic affairs, had left Patagonia on a cruise ship for Antarctica in January 2000 when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called.

Members of the Security Council, Annan said, wanted him to lead the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission, or UNMOVIC, responsible for Iraq's ballistic, chemical and biological weapons.

"I was taken out of the refrigerator -- literally," Blix said. He took up the post in March 2000.

His hiking now is limited to a 25-minute walk to his 35th-floor offices at UN headquarters, knapsack on his back. He works most weekends, his wife having remained in Sweden and his two adult sons leading their own lives.

"I live like a monk. I have a computer at home," he said.

Diplomats say Blix has brought credibility in revamping the agency, discredited by charges of U.S. spying and steady Russian criticism of his predecessor, Australian Richard Butler.

He has set up training courses for more than 200 potential inspectors and created an electronic archive with 30,000 entries of material collected in Iraq by his two predecessors, Butler and fellow Swede Rolf Ekeus.

But U.S. conservatives have accused Blix of overlooking Iraq's atomic arms program during the years he headed the IAEA, which spent decades promoting nuclear energy.

Blix says the rules of the game have changed considerably since the 1991 Gulf War, which for the first time permitted intrusive scrutiny by IAEA teams of nuclear materials in Iraq.

Iraq, which had not permitted UN inspectors to return to Baghdad since December 1998, made him a prime target for many months in 2002.

"From the beginning they regarded UNMOVIC as a nonentity," he said. "Later on I was promoted to a spy and then finally we had the pleasure of discussions with the Iraqis."

But he stood firm in three rounds of talks with Iraqi arms officials, refusing to go to Baghdad unless inspections were conducted on his terms. Iraq finally agreed.

"We have waited now for nearly four years, so we have to have a little more patience," he said with a wry smile.