U.N. Team Downcast About Iraq Mission
By Barton Gellman
While routine monitoring visits at Iraqi sites were conducted again yesterday, it will be weeks before the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, can plan and execute its first challenge inspections -- and much longer before it regains the scent of forbidden weapons after a four-month hiatus, inspectors said. Meanwhile, Iraq's defenders in the U.N. Security Council are preparing an inquiry that will dissect and perhaps limit UNSCOM's work.
On Friday, Baghdad provided a new test of the inspectors' authority. A junior Iraqi foreign ministry official notified chief inspector Richard Butler that UNSCOM's requests last week for disputed weapons documents were "provocative rather than professional," and then dismissed or deflected the queries.
National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, accompanying President Clinton on a trip to South Korea, told reporters yesterday that "Iraq has an obligation to produce the documents." He reiterated a warning that U.S. support for UNSCOM -- including its unrestricted access to weapons sites and information -- would be backed by military strikes if Iraq does not cooperate.
However, the view inside UNSCOM is notably lacking the sense of new brawn imputed to inspectors by the Clinton administration and in corridor talk at the United Nation's East River headquarters. Inspectors do not feel the "wind in their sails" suggested by one European representative or the "greatly strengthened" mandate described by an adviser to Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Four senior inspectors, in interviews on condition of anonymity, said they can foresee no successful end to the panel's seven-year disarmament mission.
"The whole range of UNSCOM's authority has been eroded," said a long-serving foreign member of the panel's leadership. "There is nothing we can do to return to the effectiveness we had in 1995 and 1996."
Mission planners at UNSCOM have begun to devise ambitious tests of Iraqi cooperation, but they say they have no new defense against the Baghdad government's favored tactic of deflection and delay. UNSCOM expects neither defiance nor cooperation, according to inspectors and their diplomatic allies. Instead, they predict a return to past patterns of dissemblance aimed at frustrating the inspections without provoking open conflict.
For Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who issued and retracted launch orders last weekend, that prospect has the potential to blur their insistence that they will now strike without warning should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein block efforts to uncover and eliminate banned weapons programs.
"That is the key question that is going to be hounding us in the next couple of weeks: What constitutes clear-cut noncooperation that justifies the use of force?" said a Clinton administration official who described that as among the subjects Clinton discussed with his Cabinet advisers Tuesday afternoon. "If Iraq plays it the way they have in the past, they'll create enough grayness to make it difficult for the Russians, French and Chinese to say they're not cooperating. The hard part is what you do to demonstrate that he's not cooperating, because if he's smart he doesn't make it obvious."
Well-informed diplomats said it will be two or three weeks before UNSCOM can confront the Iraqis with meaningful surprise inspections, and the long interval since the last searches in July make it improbable that they will discover anything in the first round. The intelligence leads UNSCOM relies on are highly perishable, since Iraq routinely moves its hidden caches of documents and equipment.
"Prudent and smart Iraqi planners, and they have plenty of those, will have taken every precaution," said one UNSCOM inspector. "Wherever we go, we'll find an empty room, and they'll hold the door open for us."
A series of apparently fruitless searches, inspectors fear, will weaken UNSCOM politically with a Security Council long since grown weary of the struggle with Iraq. The council has promised a "comprehensive review" of Iraq's performance under the Security Council resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with an implicit view to lifting an eight-year oil embargo. The inspectors, one of them said, believe "the knives are out" for UNSCOM in the Russian, French and Chinese delegations.
UNSCOM is also under pressure to become a more "normal" United Nations bureaucracy, recasting its headquarters with more career international servants subject to the organization's national distribution rules. Butler, among friends, describes the demands as "white anting," a reference to insects in his native Australia that eat away at trees from within until they topple.
Contrary to UNSCOM's expert view, the governing presumption in Annan's inner circle and in the Russian and French delegations here is that Iraq's disarmament is nearly complete. Russia and France, in particular, are pressing for the comprehensive review to be finished by Christmas, with a view to lifting the oil embargo or listing a few narrow remaining tasks before doing so.
"You can never have 100 percent proof [of disarmament] because it's too easy to develop, manufacture and hide biological weapons, so at some point the technical exercise gives way to a political judgment," said a confidant of Annan. "At some point, it becomes impossible to prove a negative."
The American and British delegations intend to resist pressure for a clean bill of health for Iraq, and each has a veto in the council. Iraq's frustration with the review is seen as another likely occasion for conflict with UNSCOM.
"All members of the council are looking for quick responses to the question, 'Are the Iraqis cooperating or not?' " said Charles Duelfer, deputy executive chairman. "The important question is, 'Will the Iraqis continue to cooperate after a comprehensive review?' "
Japan's new ambassador to the United Nations, Yukio Satoh, made roughly the same point as he emerged from a meeting with Butler. "They are back now. The question is how long," he said.
UNSCOM, meanwhile, is getting contradictory marching orders in back-room consultations with the Security Council. An American official advised UNSCOM to "go like bats out of hell." A British diplomat urged Butler to "graduate his approach and not give the Iraqis a basis to say he's gone from nought to 10 in a few days."
Rather less friendly was advice from the representative of a skeptical European power: "If Mr. Butler behaves as the head of a subsidiary body of the U.N., and acts as if his mandate is to make progress rather than fish for a crisis, he will make reasonable requests and ask for only relevant documents."
Butler sent Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz a letter late Tuesday night reprising the requests for documents that Iraq has variously described as nonexistent, refused to turn over, or turned over and then snatched back over the past year.
One document, which was briefly in the hands of UNSCOM inspector Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack on July 18, details the number of R-400 aerial bombs Iraq used in its eight-year war with Iran. Iraq is known to have made 1,550 of the bombs, which were filled with biological and chemical warfare agents and equipped with parachute assemblies for dispersing the agents efficiently. The document Kraatz-Wadsack read showed that Iraq used far fewer of the bombs against Iran -- and therefore has many more unaccounted for in its arsenal -- than it had told the special commission.
Aziz told Butler on Aug. 3, according to Butler's written report to the Security Council, that Iraq "would never give the commission the document." On Friday, Aziz did not bother replying. A much more junior official, Deputy Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Qaysi, wrote Butler back to say "relevant portions" of the document might be shown to inspectors under the supervision of Annan's Baghdad envoy, Prakash Shah.
More broadly, Al-Qaysi said Butler's document request was "provocative rather than professional," and a needless impediment to the Security Council's comprehensive review.
In several cases, Iraq maintains it cannot find disputed documents, a reply one Western diplomat characterized as, "We're sorry, but we're a Third World country and the dog ate it." Iraq's defenders in the Security Council tend to accept these explanations.
"They are not refusing to give these documents," said Vladimir P. Dedouchkine, a senior Russian diplomat here. "Probably they don't have them."
Most close observers of the delicate diplomatic dance around UNSCOM doubt that Clinton or Blair will go to war over this sort of Iraqi obfuscation. But officially the two governments are trying to exert maximum pressure by giving Iraq that impression.
"Inspections have normally been blocked either by prevarication, time delay or by moving stuff out the back door," said one British diplomat. "If that drill is spotted, the Iraqis don't know that's not going to trigger an attack. There are at least some people in the president's entourage who are in a 'Make my day, punk' mood."
During the past week, the Pentagon has recalled nearly all the extra warplanes that had been mobilized to bolster American forces in the Persian Gulf region, defense officials said yesterday.
A standing U.S. force of about 180 combat aircraft and more than 20 warships remains in the area, with the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise scheduled to arrive early this week to replace the USS Eisenhower. The remaining firepower is capable of doing substantial damage to Iraq, the officials stressed.
But yesterday Clinton, speaking at a news conference in Seoul, played down the importance of the Iraqi response. "I think it's important we not overreact here on the first day. I want to make sure that I know exactly what the facts are," he said.
The commission's most controversial inspections in the past probed Iraqi secret services in an effort to learn the methods they use to spy on the inspectors and shuttle Iraq's forbidden weapons among hiding places. The Clinton administration pressed Butler to restrain those inspections this year to avoid damaging UNSCOM's diplomatic support. Frustration with that restraint led the chief of the "counter-concealment" team, American Scott Ritter, to resign in August.
In principle, UNSCOM said, that work will proceed under a new chief, Australian Richard Bradshaw. But Iraq's most frequent defenders in the Security Council remain opposed, even in principle, to that kind of work.
"We don't have any confirmation that this 'concealment mechanism' really exists, and that is why, in general, we think this issue is a minor one," said Dedouchkine, the Russian diplomat. "You know the Iraqi position. They say they have nothing to conceal. We see no reason not to believe them."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company