UN inspectors took off for Iraq on Monday to resume the search for alleged weapons of mass destruction in a mission that could determine whether the Gulf is plunged into a war.
Moments before their plane took off from Larnaca, Cyprus, Ewen Buchanan, the chief spokesman for the inspection team, declared "a new chapter of inspection" was beginning.
Chief UN inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who oversees the International Atomic Energy Agency, made no comment but waved and smiled to reporters at the airport in Cyprus, where their team assembled from around the world before heading to Baghdad.
Buchanan said the equipment loaded Monday onto an L-100 cargo plane with a black "UN" painted on its side included vacuum cleaners "to clear up four years of dust." Inspectors were last in Iraq in 1998.
US President Bush has warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that failure to cooperate with the inspectors will bring on an American attack. Saddam faces a three-week deadline to reveal his weapons of mass destruction or provide convincing evidence he no longer has any.
In Iraq Monday, Al-Thawra, the mouthpiece of Saddam's ruling Baath Party, said in a front-page editorial that the previous UN inspection regime had been "an American organization to spy on Iraq," and that it hoped the new team would avoid that trap.
The last inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 amid Iraqi allegations that some were spying for the United States and countercharges that Iraq was not cooperating with the teams. Their departure was followed by four days of punishing U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq.
Another leading Iraqi newspaper, Babil, said in an editorial titled "our people are up to the responsibility" that Iraq wants the inspectors' mission to "prove to the Americans ... that our country is free of weapons of mass destruction," said Babil, which is owned by the Iraqi president's son, Odai.
"Those unjust Americans, as well as others, should leave the Security Council alone and end the unjust siege imposed on us," Babil said.
Iraq has been under strict economic sanctions since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions can be lifted when weapons inspectors say Iraq is clear of weapons of mass destruction.
Blix and ElBaradei had flown to Cyprus en route to Baghdad from Vienna, Austria on Sunday, joining about two dozen other members of the advance team assembling here to prepare for resuming inspections.
"The question of war and peace remains first of all in the hands of Iraq, the Security Council and the members of the Security Council," Blix said Sunday.
Blix, who will lead the overall mission, said his team was prepared to meet the challenge of ensuring Iraqi compliance. But he said he hoped Iraq would not try to hide anything.
The United States is waiting to see Iraq's response to inspections before going to the Security Council for debate of military action, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday.
"It seems to me that what will happen is a pattern of behavior will evolve and then people will make judgments with respect to it," Rumsfeld told reporters flying with him to a defense ministers' summit in Santiago, Chile.
Sounding a tough line, ElBaradei said Sunday there was agreement on the need for "intrusive verifications � that means we would go everywhere, we will use every means at our disposal to make sure that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction."
He also said Iraqis with key information would be taken out of the country for interviews for their own safety if necessary but acknowledged, "if people do not want to talk, we obviously will not be able to force them to talk."
Blix favors cooperation instead of confrontation with the Iraqis, and the differences in approach could create tension between the inspectors and the Bush administration, UN officials said Sunday on condition of anonymity.
Although Blix has urged the United States to provide more intelligence support for his mission, he also warned over the weekend of the pitfalls of such cooperation, saying in Paris that the previous inspection mission failed in part because of its close association with government intelligence agencies and Western states.
Blix and ElBaradei warned Sunday they would not tolerate attempts to coerce their staff into surreptitiously sharing information with governments.
Blix has said that preliminary inspections likely will resume Nov. 27, with full-scale checks beginning after Iraq files a declaration of its banned weapons programs by a Dec. 8 deadline.
Blix then has 60 days to report back to the UN Security Council with his findings.
While denying wrongdoing, Saddam agreed Wednesday to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons after the Security Council approved a toughly worded resolution that gives Iraq "a final opportunity" to eliminate such arms and the long-range missiles to deliver them. It gives inspectors the right to go anywhere at anytime and warns Iraq it will face "serious consequences" if it fails to cooperate.
The advance team will reopen the office used by the previous inspections regime and set up secure phone lines and transportation.
Meanwhile, the official Iraqi News Agency quoted an unidentified military spokesman as saying air defense units opened fire late Saturday and Sunday on "hostile warplanes" forcing them to leave Iraqi air space.
Such actions are considered by US officials a violation of the new Security Council resolution.
Buchanan, the U.N. inspectors' spokesman, said Monday he did not think the no-fly zone activity would affect the inspection mission.