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Return Of Rolf Ekeus?

After a difficult search for a candidate to head the new Iraq weapons inspection agency, the U.N. chief announced his choice Monday: Rolf Ekeus, the same man who led the old inspection agency for six years before Richard Butler took over.

Russia immediately rejected Annan's pick, throwing Ekeus' future into doubt. The United States, currently president of the Security Council, received a formal letter Monday evening from the Russian ambassador saying Moscow "cannot agree with the proposal," a U.S. official said.

Consultations were scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

In picking the Swedish diplomat, Secretary-General Kofi Annan overrode Russian and Chinese objections and set up a likely confrontation with Baghdad. Iraq questioned the nomination Monday, saying it amounted to putting "old wine in new bottles."

"How can they appoint a new commission and then name its former head to lead it?" Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said to reporters after a meeting in Spain.

Ekeus was the first executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission, which was created in 1991 in the aftermath of Gulf War to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. He stepped down in 1997 to become Sweden's ambassador to the United States.

While his successor, Richard Butler of Australia, incurred the wrath of the Iraqis during his tumultuous two-year term, Ekeus too was harshly criticized by the Baghdad leadership, particularly towards the end of his tenure.

Aziz on Monday accused Ekeus of deliberately prolonging U.N. trade sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. He said the Swedish diplomat allowed inspectors to spy on Baghdad.

Monday evening, Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov sent the letter formally objecting to Ekeus' candidacy. The United States, which presently controls the presidency of the Security Council, had given missions 24 hours to formally object following normal procedures for U.N. appointments.

U.N. officials said it would be up to the council and its president, the U.S. ambassador, to decide how to proceed Tuesday after consultations.

Washington, meanwhile, applauded Annan's decision.

"We support Ambassador Ekeus, who in the past, has ably served the international community in its efforts to disarm Iraq," said deputy State Department spokesman, James. B. Foley.

The new inspection agency, UNMOVIC, was formed in December to replace UNSCOM, which pulled out of Baghdad in December, 1998, ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes. Iraq has said UNSCOM inspectors cannot return.

Annan named Ekeus after a difficult monthlong search for a candidate who would be agreeable to all members of the Security Council. After a Sunday deadline passed without consensus, Annan wrote Monday morning to the president of the council, Richard Holbrooke of the United States, that he had "come to the conclusion that Ambassador Rolf Ekeus of Sweden sould be appointed executive chairman of UNMOVIC."

Ekeus' tenure as chief U.N. inspector was marked by several important developments, including the uncovering of Iraq's biological weapons program.

But Ekeus also raised eyebrows at the United Nations when he cut a deal with the Iraqis to gain access to so-called "sensitive sites" in 1996, setting up special procedures for access that weren't called for in U.N. resolutions.

Some at the United Nations believe that deal was the first step in UNSCOM's downfall, setting the stage for future Iraqi attempts to prevent or complicate inspectors' access to certain sites.

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