A sign advertising the U.N. weapons inspection team hangs outside the run-down Baghdad hotel that served as its headquarters until a year ago. The group's fleet of white vehicles waits in the parking lot, tagged and ready to resume the hunt.
But that is unlikely any time soon. The assessment from Iraqi officials and foreign diplomats here is that the debate over weapons inspection--urgent enough 13 months ago to spark a four-day U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq--has reached a deadlock that neither the Americans nor the Iraqis have much incentive to break.
Viewed from Baghdad, the recent U.N. debate over renewal of a weapons inspection program showed no change in America's demand for a tough inspection regime as a condition for relaxing the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Persian Gulf War that followed in early 1991.
Iraqi officials have concluded, meanwhile, that they can get enough food, medicine and other supplies under existing rules to meet immediate needs. Despite a U.S. commitment to "regime change" in Iraq--presumably meaning overthrowing President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Socialist Party rule--there is likewise enough sense of political stability for the Iraqi government to simply wait and argue for the least onerous inspection system--and the most ensured end to sanctions--that it can get.
"There is no sense of urgency," said Nizar Hamdoon, a former ambassador to Washington and the United Nations and now undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The understanding here in the government and at the street level is that America is not going to change its mind."
The expectation that sanctions will remain in place, Hamdoon added, leaves Iraq little incentive to accept a new inspection regime and little alternative but to plod along under existing economic restrictions. The result is a status quo that could go on indefinitely, with the Iraqi government entrenched, the United States publicly committed to sanctions and funding Iraqi opposition groups and no third party willing or able to mediate.
Humanitarian officials here said the situation for Iraqis is one of a society barely coping. The sanctions allow Iraq to trade a U.N.-specified amount of oil for survival levels of food and, in one notable improvement, enough medicine to create a stockpile near the level recommended by the World Health Organization. But at the same time resources are stretched too thin to address problems like child malnutrition, infant mortality and water-borne diseases that all skyrocketed in the years following the war.
That has become the norm here now, nearly 10 years after the cease-fire placed Iraq under strict economic sanctions until it completed the dismantling of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Over the ensuing years, Iraq sparred continually with the inspection teams, concealing records and data until the work of the inspectors and information supplied by high-level defectors made disclosure unavoidable. The program of biological and chemical weapons eventually uncovered was more extensive than originally thought, creating a climate so rife with suspicion that Iraq was recently questioned over its request to import several bulls because of worries about whether accompanying vaccines would be useful in biological weapons research. Many imports into Iraq are reviewed by a U.N. committee to ensure that items are put to their specified end and that no weapons materials or components are brought in under the guise of a civilian use.
From the Iraqi side, the links between U.N. inspectors and American and Israeli intelligence services created similar mistrust.
In December 1998, after the United States and Britain concluded that Iraq was not going to fulfill its promises to give weapons inspectors unfettered access, an intensive bombing campaign targeted dozens of sites around the country that U.N. inspectors had listed as possible weapons storage or research facilities. The inspection teams were withdrawn and their organization, the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, was effectively abolished.
The recent U.N. discussion over a new inspection program showed how hardened the sides have become. Although a new inspection unit has been approved, the Security Council remains divided over who should run it. And there is little sense yet of whether a mission for it can be found that reconciles U.S. hesitancy to lift sanctions with Iraq's hesitancy to accept what one diplomat here called the "headache" of renewed inspections.
"It is going to be a very painful process," said the diplomat. "Practically, we have a vacuum, and it continues."