WASHINGTON — WAS the standoff over the right of United Nations inspectors to enter the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture just the beginning? Will an emboldened Saddam Hussein now renew his efforts to keep his doors closed to prying UN eyes, leading to more parking-lot standoffs, more "spontaneous" demonstrations, another crisis that next time might not be defused?
One top UN inspection official thinks that won't happen. Speaking with reporters on condition he not be identified, the official described the Agricultural Ministry dispute as almost an accident, a confrontation driven by miscalculations on both sides.
In the future "I don't expect a lot of flare-ups," said the official.
He points out that, until the recent standoff, Iraqi cooperation with inspections had been relatively good for over a year.
When UN inspectors first showed up at the building in question, following a tip that it contained documents dealing with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, they didn't know it was a ministry-level location, according to this UN source.
Iraqi officials had already indicated that they were sensitive about UN inspections of ministry headquarters buildings. In a previous visit to the heavy industry ministry, the UN had accordingly taken a much lower profile than normal - and wasn't hindered in its search. A different approach may have been taken
If the UN had known the identity of the Agriculture Ministry beforehand, its team might have moved in a more circumspect manner, without the satellite communications gear, ambulances, vans, etc., that it typically uses.
"We might have taken a different approach," admitted the UN official, who appeared in Washington at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a private defense-oriented think tank.
But once the inspectors were prevented from entering the building, principle demanded that "one way or another, we had to get into that facility," said the official, who has long experience in inspection matters.
UN inspectors on the scene, who found no incriminating evidence in their inspection last week, said there was evidence that material had been hurriedly removed.
But the UN official in Washington said it was his personal belief that probably no such material had even been in the Agriculture Ministry.
As to all the talk of treasure-troves of documents the Iraqis had hid in the building, the official said "in some respects we got 10 pounds of speculation out of a 2-pound bag." Bush administration continues to talk tough
In contrast to the tone taken by this high UN official, the Bush administration has continued to talk tough to Saddam even as the acute problem of the Agriculture Ministry standoff has eased.
Administration officials last week cited a deterioration in the security provided UN personnel throughout Iraq and intensified attacks against the Shia minority in the south as evidence of Saddam's continued "outlaw behavior."
They point to the continuing problem of Iraq's rejection of long-term monitoring of its weapons programs, as called for by UN resolutions.
Thus the Agriculture incident "fits into a larger and disturbing picture of Iraq flouting UN obligations," said Principle Deputy Secretary of State George Ward in a congressional appearance last week.
The administration now talks of pressing for an end to attacks on the Shias, tightening US ties to Iraqi opposition groups, and accelerating UN inspections.
"We have to step up the inspections," Edward Perkins, United States ambassador to the UN, told Congress. "I think that we have to put Saddam Hussein to the test, not once, but time and time again."
The senior UN official, however, said that with little new, hard intelligence coming in, the inspections are in a cleaning-up phase, and that "we're at a point in the program where it's difficult to accelerate."