In the seven months since U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq, the United States has seen no indication that Baghdad has resumed its chemical and biological weapons programs, according to administration officials.
After inspectors withdrew on Dec. 16, hours before the United States and Britain began a three-day bombing campaign to punish Iraq for failure to cooperate with them, President Clinton said he had "no doubt" that President Saddam Hussein would begin work anew on the weapons programs. National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said Washington would be using its "formidable intelligence capabilities" to "know what [Iraq] is trying to build and buy."
But so far, said an administration official who closely monitors intelligence on Iraq, "we have seen no evidence of reconstruction of weapons of mass destruction." Others watching closely have drawn similar blanks. "We continue to hear things, but nothing you can take to the bank," said a source inside the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, the disarmament and inspection agency.
Administration officials and others say they are uncertain why Iraq has not done as expected, or how long it will last. Officials insist that the Operation Desert Fox bombing knocked Iraq off balance and cite scattered indications of increased opposition inside the country. But no one is claiming to have seen any serious threat to the government.
In the meantime, the once-urgent U.S. insistence on inspections appears to have diminished. The United States and Britain have been unable to convince Russia, China and France--the other three veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--that strict economic sanctions against Iraq should continue even if Iraq agrees to new inspections.
"We would obviously like to see the inspectors go back in," said the administration official, who spoke on condition that he not be named. "But what's not acceptable is a sham inspection process."
As the impasse continues, two dozen U.S. ships and about 200 aircraft remain in the region, enforcing economic sanctions and patrolling "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq.
Iraq challenged the patrols with radar and ground fire daily in the months following the bombing, and there are still occasional spikes of high activity. But days frequently go by with no challenge, and once-frequent incursions by Iraqi aircraft are rare, officials said.
Many in Congress have continued to demand that the administration provide dissident Iraqi exiles with supplies, weapons and training. But while organizational meetings have been held and more are planned, none of the $97 million in Pentagon supplies authorized last year for the opposition has been spent, and a major opposition assembly originally planned for this month has been postponed.
The relative quiet appears to suit an Iraq policy that administration officials label "containment." It includes continued sanctions and international isolation, along with efforts to alleviate hardships that the restrictions have brought on the Iraqi people. The policy also pledges a nonspecific U.S. commitment to replacing Saddam Hussein, and readiness to move militarily at any sign Iraq is threatening its neighbors or rebuilding its weapons programs.
The policy has frustrated those who would like to loosen the international restraints against Iraq, as well as those who would like to move more aggressively to promote Saddam Hussein's collapse.
At the Security Council, Russia, China and France back a resolution that would lift sanctions once Iraq agreed to new inspections. A competing, U.S.-supported draft sponsored by Britain and the Netherlands proposes an UNSCOM-replacement agency, to be called the United Nations Commission on Inspection and Monitoring, or UNCIM. Iraq would have to comply over several months with a series of benchmarks set by inspectors before any easing of sanctions would be considered.
Months of largely fruitless debate have exacerbated long-standing suspicions and bad feelings on both sides. Those governments advocating the lifting of sanctions suspect the United States has no intention ever to reward Iraq, no matter how much it might cooperate with inspectors, according to diplomats in New York. Washington, they believe, would be just as happy with no resolution--even if it meant no inspections.
Russia and France, along with Canada, which has tried to broker a compromise, are also irritated that Washington has imputed a profit motive--the desire to move their own oil companies into Iraq--to their efforts.
Administration officials agreed that no inspections is better than any compromise. "The status quo has the virtue of keeping the sanctions in place," an administration official said. Arguments from the other side that Iraqis are suffering increasing deprivation as a result of the sanctions are exaggerated, the official said.
For its part, Iraq has given no indication it finds the relatively friendly Russian draft acceptable, and has firmly rejected the British proposal. The creation of UNCIM is "unacceptable," the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Saeed Hassan, said in an interview. "It gives Iraq nothing, and it won't be implemented."
Even without weapons inspectors on the ground, small-scale skirmishes continue between the United Nations and Iraq. Last week, Baghdad expelled a New Zealand employee of a U.N. mine disposal program, contending that he buried crop-damaging locust eggs in a field in an effort to undermine Iraqi agriculture. U.N. headquarters in New York, which had denied an earlier, similar accusation, said it would investigate.
As the administration tries gingerly to promote dissent inside Iraq, it has continued to try to stave off congressional insistence that it provide lethal aid to dissidents on the outside.
Under the Iraq Liberation Act passed last year and reluctantly signed by Clinton, Congress authorized $97 million in unspecified Pentagon supplies to be given to a designated group of Iraqi opposition leaders who pledged to overthrow the government. But what Congress had in mind--weapons and military training--has clashed with the administration's belief that the opposition leaders are far from coalescing into a political movement with some resonance inside Iraq, and farther still from launching an armed insurgency there.
Special correspondent Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.