Iraq Cooperating on Inspections
By Barton Gellman
Nearly a month after Iraq made fresh promises of access for United Nations weapons inspectors, the Baghdad government by all accounts is living up to its word for now. The results, said American and British officials at the core of the special U.N. panel's support, are decidedly a mixed blessing for the inspectors.
Last week the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, conducted nine of the most sensitive surprise inspections in its seven-year history and came up largely empty, according to accounts emerging from the Clinton administration and British government. That is neither surprising nor alarming to those who focus on the technical side of the long cat-and-mouse game with Iraqi weapons scientists, but the absence of fresh evidence has not helped UNSCOM bolster its declining support in the Security Council and U.N. Secretariat.
Iraq's previous refusal to give inspectors entry to various "sensitive" and "presidential" sites and its boycott of inspector Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine often described in Iraqi propaganda as an American spy touched off a crisis in January that led to the brink of military conflict with the United States and Britain. But Iraq backed off both positions in a Feb. 23 agreement with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Diplomats in New York and Washington now say Iraq is on good behavior in hopes of killing the linked program of inspections and economic sanctions when it comes up for review in October.
To test Iraq's compliance, Ritter led an inspection team on Sunday, March 8 into the new headquarters of Iraq's defense ministry an event that Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz once said would be "an act of war." Not only was it the first time the facility had been inspected, but Ritter even surveyed Aziz's own office there, according to Clinton administration officials.
Ritter's team, which includes scientists and computer analysts who specialize in uncovering Iraqi concealment methods, made similar forays into offices of the Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization, both run by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's younger son Qusay. UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler said on ABC television yesterday morning that before the Annan agreement the inspectors had been refused entry to more than one of the sites.
Butler portrayed Ritter's three-day mission, which ended last Tuesday, as a precedent-setting expansion of the special panel's writ. The scope of inspections will broaden again between March 24 and April 6, when a special group of experts makes its first entrance to eight "presidential sites" covering 12 square miles and 1,058 buildings. Diplomats who will accompany inspectors on those visits were named yesterday by a U.N. official in Geneva.
"In the past we've been blocked," Butler said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "We were not. We met with a degree of cooperation that I think justifies figuring that maybe there is now a new spirit out there."
Though he made no direct reference to the results, Butler added, "In arms control one of the best reports you can give is a nil report."
However, the politics of the matter are otherwise. UNSCOM says it has not come close to ridding Iraq of its nonconventional weapons, but previous UNSCOM backers in the Security Council and the Arab world are tired of supporting the inspections after seven inconclusive years.
UNSCOM's mandate from the Security Council, imposed on the Baghdad government after American-led troops ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, is to rid Iraq of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. In 21 periodic reports, another of which is due next month, the special panel has laid out dozens of questions for example, what happened to 15,620 missing chemical munitions that Iraq is known to have filled? to which Iraq has supplied no credible answers.
But not since October 1995 has the commission turned up dramatic new evidence that Iraq is concealing prohibited weapons. That proof came with the defection to Jordan of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and military production chief, Hussein Kamel, who later returned to Iraq and died in a hail of gunfire that same day. Kamel disclosed an extensive biological weapons program that the commission had long suspected existed.
Since then, Iraq has stonewalled on the details of its anthrax, botulinum and aflatoxin weapons, subjects that UNSCOM's last published report called "unredeemed by progress." In the face of strong pressures to wind down the inspections from Russia, France, China and the Arab League, close aides to the secretary general predicted trouble for UNSCOM and the Clinton administration if the inspectors fail to turn up a smoking gun in the next several months.
"When they come back for the October review, if the Iraqis keep every door open, don't hide anything, and we still find nothing, the Security Council may well say you've knocked down enough doors, or knocked on enough doors," said one member of Annan's inner circle. "Then I think the Americans will have difficulty."
To combat the Iraqi argument that UNSCOM and the United States aim to cripple the Iraqi economy forever, Butler said this week for the first time that "we could get this done within a year or so, maybe slightly less." In a less-noticed proviso, he added, "Who knows? It depends on the degree of cooperation from Iraq."
The Clinton administration believes it has beat back, for now, a proposal to appoint a Russian deputy to Butler to serve alongside the commission's longtime number two, American Charles Duelfer. The idea alarmed Clinton's advisers and other proponents of a strong inspection program, in part because Russia has tilted toward Iraq in several disputes with the U.N. inspectors.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's U.N. ambassador, set the argument in motion with a March 4 letter to Annan promoting Viacheslav N. Kulebiakin for a new position as Duelfer's coequal. Kulebiakin is chief counselor for security and disarmament in the Russian foreign ministry.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson told Lavrov and Annan, according to officials, that UNSCOM's charter calls for only a single deputy and only the Security Council could amend it. Richardson made clear, the officials said, that the United States was prepared to veto any such attempt.
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