UN Optimistic on Iraq But Admits Real Limits

UN's Butler ends four-day visit today, citing progress on inspection. Details are elusive.

Judging by the pervasive politeness on display from the United Nations chief weapons inspector in Baghdad, the crisis that drove the United States to the brink of military strikes against Iraq last month now seems all but forgotten.

Richard Butler, head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which has a Security Council mandate to rid Iraq of all weapons of mass destruction, now describes a "new spirit of cooperation" from Iraq that may allow inspectors to "finish quickly," so that sanctions against Iraq can be lifted.

A significant reason behind the "kinder, gentler" face of the UN weapons inspection regime here is that the political dynamic has changed dramatically in the past month, from one of confrontation to - at least on the surface - cooperation.

But diplomats and analysts warn that the potential for renewed crisis remains real, and that details may be impossible to verify.

As UNSCOM tries to establish the extent of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, they say, some final facts may remain technically unconfirmable.

On the diplomatic front, there has been progress. Two new senior UN officials have been appointed to Baghdad - including a personal representative of Secretary-General Kofi Annan - to ensure direct lines of communication with New York designed to prevent any future problem from turning into a full-blown crisis.

"We're looking firmly ahead," Mr. Butler said during his four-day trip to Baghdad, which ends today. "We think there's a real chance here to get this job done. Iraq must present to us the last remaining pieces that we need for verification.

"The point is: They've made a claim that they have no more of these weapons," he says. "We can't just accept that on the basis of a say-so. We're not unduly suspicious, but we are scientific."

Not even Iraq's arrest two weeks ago of Nassir Hindawi, the reputed father of Iraq's secret biological weapons program - which was made public Tuesday, amid speculation that the scientist would be kept from UN inspectors - ruffled UNSCOM feathers.

"We consider this an internal issue for Iraq," says Gustavo Zlauvinen, the political adviser to Butler. Mr. Hindawi left the biological program in 1989, and UNSCOM has interviewed him several times. During a similar case two years ago, Iraqi authorities permitted inspectors to speak to a prisoner, he notes, and Iraq has promised that Hindawi will be "available."

During the latest crisis last month, Mr. Annan intervened to strike a Feb. 23 deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow unrestricted access for inspectors across Iraq. Butler called the accord a "brilliant act of diplomacy" that averted war, and new procedures are being put in place to begin inspecting eight "presidential sites" by the end of the month.

The Security Council has resolved that Iraq will suffer the "severest consequences" if it violates the accord and prevents UNSCOM from carrying out inspections. Since US-led allies expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq has had an uneasy relationship with the weapons inspectors, culminating in several crises in recent months.

At least two senior diplomats will accompany each inspection team to "presidential sites," and Annan has appointed Jayantha Dhanapala, a Sri Lankan arms- control expert recently named a UN undersecretary for disarmament affairs, to oversee such inspections.

Along with the naming of Indian diplomat Prakash Shah as the new UN special representative, who will serve as a direct link between the Iraqi government and Mr. Annan, the moves provide Baghdad with alternative links to UN headquarters.

Gone now is the strong mutual rhetoric that helped fuel the latest crisis. Butler claimed in January that Iraq still harbored enough secret biological weapons to "blow away" Tel Aviv - a comment for which he was reprimanded by Security Council members - and the Iraqis countered that the Australian diplomat was a "mad dog" who could not be trusted.

Better communication

"Trust" may still be too strong a word to describe the new relationship. When Butler arrived in Baghdad, among his bags were two boxes of bottled water purchased in Bahrain, and marked for his use only.

"[Annan] believes that ... perhaps a lot of these difficulties arose because there was no direct channel of communications between the political leadership in Iraq and the secretary-general," Ambassador Shah said in an interview. "I don't know if [the crisis] is going to recur or not recur, all I can say is that my job here, I see it as making [the solution] a permanent thing."

Butler says UNSCOM has seen real progress and cooperation from Iraq in the last month, including "some quite searching inspections" that were carried out three weeks ago by a 50-member team led by the American ex-marine Scott Ritter, who is focusing on Iraqi concealment efforts. Iraq had branded Mr. Ritter a spy, but allowed him to visit sensitive sites including Defense Ministry headquarters.

"They've been giving us new information on biology, on missile warheads, and they cooperated fully [with Ritter's team]," Butler says. "To me, they're pretty concrete things."

"Iraq will bend over backward to make this work," says one diplomatic source.

"What is sure is that Iraq will play by the rules," echoes another envoy. "Then if there is a crisis, they will be in a better position to defend themselves."

Still, Western diplomats and other analysts suggest that the devil may be in the details, and interpretation of the facts. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf says that Iraq will provide no new documents at technical meetings on Iraq's biological weapons under way this week in Vienna, because "we have provided UNSCOM with every bit of information."

Called the "UNSCOM dilemma" by one diplomat, disputes may arise over details that are unquantifiable and not provable by either side. It stems from the fact that, for the past several years, UNSCOM inspectors have concentrated more on finding documents and revealing the complex chain of Iraqi concealment efforts than they have on actually searching for more illicit weapons.

Doing the math

Iraqi records, for example, may indicate that a certain amount of precursor was purchased by Iraq to make biological agents. Unless Iraq can convince them otherwise, for UNSCOM that implies that "X" amount of biological agents may exist, and therefore must be accounted for. But Iraq may argue that, 10 years ago, it only had the laboratory capacity to create "Y" amount of those agents, and that searching for any more is fruitless.

"Who is right?" asks the diplomat. "But the point is not who is right or wrong, but how can it be proved either way? My worry is that because you can't prove one version or the other by technical means, that it must be solved by political ways."

Another case is said to be a handwritten list that appears among hundreds of thousands of other pages of Iraqi documents. It shows what quantities of various substances were secretly stored in normally "civilian" government buildings and ministries. When the names of these locations were changed - and listed with the exact same amounts, under the new names - UNSCOM is believed to have added the two columns, instead of considering them the same stores.

"There are dozens of these examples of divergence, but how do you solve that? How do we ever have certitude?" asks the diplomat. "This is why we are not sure of the outcome, and why a crisis can happen at anytime."

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