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How US May Lose Grip on Iraq

Attacks could miss deadly weapons, and likely end UN probe of whole Iraq military.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1998


Behind a door of reinforced steel at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, much of the real work of the UN weapons-inspections teams takes place.

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Deep inside, banks of television screens are said to be set up, on which inspectors watch some 300 sensitive sites across the country to ensure that Iraq complies with UN Security Council resolutions to give up its weapons of mass destruction. Chemical and radiation units at some locations sample the air, and X-rays and satellite images are used.

This elaborate weapons-inspection regime was designed to eradicate Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic missile capability. Iraq was forced to accept it with the Gulf War cease-fire. By and large, with nudging, it has complied with inspections.

President Clinton says that the work of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarmament has done more to erase such weapons from Iraq's arsenals than the entire Gulf War air campaign. And even as the current crisis unfolds - with one American-led team prevented from visiting sites the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein deems "sensitive" - other inspection teams work unhindered.

Officials in Washington say that the use - or threat - of force is meant to compel Iraq to allow unfettered access to all sites. Repeated denial of that access has been taken by Washington and the UN to mean that Iraq still harbors chemical and biological weapons that present a real, immediate danger to its neighbors.

But in the view of many Western analysts and diplomats here - who all declined to be identified further - the lack of an evident "endgame" by Washington means the risks of such an attack now far outweigh any benefit.

With a US and British armada building in the Persian Gulf, some diplomats warn that a military strike could put UN weapons-monitoring at risk, reverse its successes, and jeopardize humanitarian efforts meant to offset the impact of sanctions.

"If there is a military strike, the first result will be that the inspectors will be out of Iraq," says one diplomat. "As far as disarmament, we will lose our grip on Iraq. UNSCOM is the only instrument to bring Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction."

Analysts say that this point appears to have been lost in the flurry of diplomatic activity and strong signals from the Clinton administration that it does not expect a peaceful solution.

One source with experience in Washington notes that "all crises have two different dynamics," one on the ground and one in the US capital. "At a certain point, Washington gets a head of steam, and it doesn't matter what happens on the ground," the source says.

Other analysts say the costly dispatch of 2,000 US marines and more fighter planes may make an attack inevitable.

"Did they pass the point of no return?" asks a Western source. "I'm afraid [an attack] may now become a face-saving measure for Washington."

The current crisis was prefaced by events last November. Then, angry at what it said was the top-heavy presence of Americans in the UNSCOM inspection teams, Iraq kicked out American inspectors. UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, an Australian, decided to withdraw all inspectors.