AMMAN, Jordan -- Big things -- war and peace -- hang in the balance as U.N. weapons teams take up the hunt again in Iraq. But it may be small things -- the gauge of a metal tube, the soft beep of a detector, a telltale whiff of chlorine -- that will tip the balance in the end.
The inspectors, who began arriving in Baghdad on Monday, may face months of painstaking analysis to try to answer a core question: Has Iraq, in four years without international inspections, secretly continued to develop doomsday weapons?
The Iraqi government says flatly it has not. To test the truth of that, the U.N. experts are equipped with satellite photos and defectors' accounts, inventories of Iraqi equipment purchases and the latest in high-tech detection gear.
They have a confidential list of 700 to 800 potential inspection targets -- sites possibly associated with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. They know, from the previous U.N. inspectors' experience, they'll work long days that often will begin with surprise pre-dawn calls on remote sites and end with hours at the computer or the laboratory table.
Before landing in Baghdad, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said the specialists -- eventually numbering hundreds -- would try to check out sketchy reports of Iraqi "mobile labs" for biological weapons, and of new underground storage sites.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency that seeks out nuclear weapons, said he had leads to conduct a thorough search.
"We have lots of information about where to go," he said. "We have a very good game plan."
Teams from ElBaradei's agency were the most clearly successful in the inspectors' previous stay. They uncovered and demolished extensive facilities built in the 1980s to develop atomic bombs, including a prize find 20 miles south of Baghdad, a complex where gas centrifuges were tested -- machines that "enrich" uranium as bomb material.
New satellite photos show rebuilding at that site, Al Furat, since U.N. inspectors pulled out of Iraq in December 1998. In addition, the CIA says the Iraqis have tried to import aluminum tubes of a strength and dimensions that might be used in centrifuges.
The inspectors undoubtedly will revisit Al Furat, although they question whether they'll find any sophisticated enrichment capacity after only a four-year absence. As for the metal tubes, some experts believe they were intended for non-nuclear uses. ElBaradei says his agency is waiting for more solid information from U.S. authorities.
The U.N. teams hunting for longer-range missiles in the 1990s also were relatively successful, reporting they could account for destruction of all but two of Iraq's 819 missiles capable of reaching beyond 90 miles, a limit set by the U.N. Security Council after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
A recent U.S. intelligence report speculated the Iraqis may actually have a dozen or so of these old models, assembled from odd, unaccounted-for parts. The U.S. report also suggests they may have resumed developing new longer-range missiles, since reconnaissance photos show rebuilding at a plant -- destroyed by U.N. teams -- that was to produce solid propellant for such missiles, and a new engine test facility at another site.
Such fresh construction is an invitation for an early visit by the inspectors.
Satellite pictures may also lead U.N. chemical weapons experts to a former military production site at Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, where a chlorine and phenol plant has been rebuilt. Chlorine, which has many civilian uses, also was used in some of the deadliest gas compounds manufactured in the 1980s by Iraq.
The U.N. teams reported that by 1998 they had destroyed tons of deadly chemical agents. Much of what they missed probably has deteriorated into harmlessness. But the inspectors will be interested in signs of VX -- a lethal nerve agent. In the 1990s they couldn't account for about one-fifth of the hundreds of tons of VX precursors -- the weapon's base chemicals -- obtained by Iraq.
Developing biological weapons from such deadly components as the anthrax microbe can be a relatively small, hard-to-detect enterprise. Thanks to an Iraqi general's defection, however, U.N. inspectors in the 1990s found and demolished Iraq's main facility for bioweapons research and production. They also disabled related equipment elsewhere, such as at the Al Dawrah animal vaccine plant outside Baghdad.
Recent renovation at Al Dawrah, ostensibly to make vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, might be tied to biological weapons, the U.S. intelligence dossier suggested. Such suspicions are enough to send inspectors back for a look.