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Iraq Special Report

  U.S. Says Iraq Determined Timing

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A29

Shortly after President Clinton issued the command to launch a war on the literal eve of his impeachment, his national security adviser began to canvas Capitol Hill. Just how bad, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger asked Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), should Clinton expect the political storm to be?

Biden, according to one account, advised Clinton to put on his raincoat – and launch anyway.

The bombing, which culminated more than a year at the brink with Iraq, drew charges that its principal objective was Clinton's political self-preservation. "How else," asked Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), "to explain the sudden appearance of a backbone that has been invisible up to now?"

Driving the partisan line of attack was a genuine puzzle. Why bomb now, when the obstruction of United Nations arms inspectors reported Tuesday night was neither the most severe in recent months – in August and October, for instance, Iraq shut down inspections completely – nor the first since Clinton issued a comply-or-else ultimatum a month ago?

Throughout the day, administration officials insisted that Iraq was solely responsible for the timing. If there is any causal link between impeachment and attack, according to one defense official closely involved in Iraq policy, it is only that "the Iraqis are calculating that Clinton is in trouble and they believed he would not dare to act."

Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lent his credibility as a professional officer yesterday to the assertion – made separately by Berger and others – that the administration identified mid-December as the likeliest moment of action as long ago as Nov. 15, the same day Clinton called off the last planned attack. That chronology, supported in background interviews last night, would place the decision at a moment when the midterm election results appeared to some to have discredited impeachment for good.

It was central to the administration's public case that it relied on a neutral, professional judge – the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM – for its assessment of the Iraqi misbehavior that justified military force. The president, his civilian national security advisers, and top military commanders all said yesterday that the attack was triggered by the report issued late Tuesday by UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler concluding that Iraq had violated its promise to cooperate with arms inspectors.

That is not all of the truth. Washington was aware of every event in Butler's report as it happened, beginning within days of UNSCOM's return to Baghdad last month, and it consulted in detail with Butler about how he would frame his conclusions. But the political-military plan worked out in National Security Council staff consultations, according to knowledgeable officials, called for heavy public reliance on the U.N. panel as the "triggering authority."

"We have great confidence in the independence, professionalism and judgment of Chairman Butler," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin told reporters. "There has been exaggerated, wildly exaggerated reporting in recent months about the ability of the United States to affect their timing, affect their decisions. Of course we consult with Chairman Butler. We consult before, during and after inspections. But the timetable, the sites, the methodology are determined by professionals."

At the United Nations, in the Secretariat and among foreign diplomats, there remained many doubts about the extent of Butler's autonomy from his principal national sponsor.

"There is a general feeling that in a growing number of instances Butler has been an instrument of something other than the Security Council, and that is problematic," said one New York-based diplomat who is generally sympathetic to Washington.

Arguing that Butler deliberately wrote a justification for war, the diplomat said, "Based on the same facts he could have said, 'There were something like 300 inspections [in recent weeks] and we encountered difficulties in five.'"

A review of events since November shows the administration consistently deferred judgment on Iraq and pointed ahead to Butler's report as an important moment of truth.

Clinton had ordered a major military operation on Nov. 13, to begin the following day. He delayed the attack, minutes before the first missiles were launched, and called it off on Nov. 15 when Iraq reversed its declared defiance of UNSCOM.

"Last night, Iraq agreed to meet the demands of the international community to cooperate fully with the United Nations weapons inspectors," Clinton said that day. He said he would test those promises and emphasized, among other demands, that Iraq "must give inspectors unfettered access to inspect and monitor all sites they choose with no restrictions or qualifications" and "must turn over all relevant documents."

The first UNSCOM teams returned to Baghdad on Nov. 17 for routine monitoring of the known sites of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities and ballistic missile centers. Butler also wrote to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on Nov. 19, asking for 12 sets of documents that the arms control experts knew or believed could answer outstanding questions about forbidden weapons.

He also asked for Iraqi explanations for the presence of traces of VX, a lethal nerve agent, in warhead fragments tested in the United States and France, given Iraq's blanket denial that it ever put VX into a weapon.

"The very early indicators were very negative," said an administration official who followed UNSCOM's work on a daily basis. But the administration adopted a formula of patience, with one official saying Washington would hardly go to war "over paperwork" and others – including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright – saying repeatedly that they were waiting for Butler's verdict.

Deputy foreign minister Riyadh al Qaysi wrote to Butler on Nov. 25 with a blunt refusal to offer any new facts on VX. "The incontrovertible facts are that Iraq never produced VX in stable form," he wrote, and therefore "the contamination could not but have been the result of a deliberate act of tampering with the first set of samples taken out from Iraq to the United States."

One administration official called that a crucial moment. "If Iraq was serious about being forthcoming, information about VX is very high on UNSCOM's list because it's one of the few things where the issue is soundly based on physical evidence," the official said.

In a subsequent letter Nov. 29, al Qaysi turned down most of Butler's proposals for a "schedule of work" to resolve unanswered questions. He said Butler's requests were "not related substantively to disarmament tasks."

In contacts with UNSCOM, Iraq – and some of its sympathizers on the Security Council, notably Russia and France – pressed Butler for a report on whether the Baghdad government was cooperating with the inspectors as promised. Butler told the Security Council, in a Nov. 24 meeting, that it would take him two to three weeks to test "the full range" of UNSCOM's freedom of action in Iraq. His report Tuesday night came precisely three weeks later.

In the intervening weeks, as the Security Council asked, Butler twice made interim reports about his progress. They described a number of impediments and roadblocks facing the inspectors.

On Nov. 23, for example, Butler's deputy, Charles Duelfer, reported that an Iraqi helicopter "took off and passed over a U.N. helicopter at low speed and low altitude," buzzing it from a distance of less than 10 meters, and repeated two full circles over the inspectors' aircraft. He called it "a threat to the safety of the UN personnel."

Three days later, according to Duelfer's report, Iraqi officials prevented inspectors from entering a site they said was controlled by the Iranian Mojahedin, an opponent of the Tehran government supported by Iraq. Iraqi and Mojahedin officials later acknowledged UNSCOM's right to enter the site.

On Dec. 4, Butler postponed an inspection by a biological weapons team because of conditions set by Iraq for their entry. Iraq later denied placing conditions on the search, but said it could not take place on a Friday, the Muslim day of rest. Inspectors have worked routinely on Fridays since 1991.

On Dec. 9, acting on an intelligence tip that sources said placed ballistic missile components at the Baath Party headquarters, UNSCOM inspectors turned up for a no-notice search. Iraqi escorts insisted that only four inspectors could enter – a condition with some basis in a 1996 understanding reached by Butler's predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, but that Butler believed to have been superseded. Butler called off the inspection, saying it could not be made effective.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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