NEW YORK — Ten years after the United Nations imposed sanctions against Iraq, the UN is again preparing to send weapons inspectors to Baghdad.
As the team readies for its mission, there is uncertainty over whether the inspectors will be allowed in, and what they might find - issues critical to any potential consideration of lifting the decade-old embargo.
The United States and Britain have been the strongest proponents of Iraqi disarmament, arguing that sanctions cannot be lifted until Baghdad proves it has eliminated long-range missiles and biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.
On the eve of the upcoming mission, a former UN weapons chief inspector has published a surprising assertion that Iraq already was "qualitatively disarmed" by 1998 and that the new experts will not find any arsenal full of weapons of mass destruction. Scott Ritter, once a vociferous critic of Iraqi attempts to conceal its weapons programs, published his view in a recent issue of Arms Control Today, and said in a recent interview: "Iraq is a threat to no one except to its own citizens."
Mr. Ritter's former boss, Richard Butler, disagrees. Mr. Butler, ex-executive chairman of the United Nations special commission in charge of monitoring Iraq, calls it "utter folly" to assert that Iraq is fundamentally disarmed.
"It is perfectly clear that Iraq is back in the business of seeking to acquire a long-range missile capability," says Butler. "I have seen credible evidence that they have recalled their nuclear design team and they have repaired their chemical-production building."
If Iraq acquires enough highly enriched uranium, available on the black market, Butler says, they have the knowledge and the technology to fabricate an atomic bomb within a year's time.
But Ritter maintains that Baghdad has no capability to project its military power outside its borders, and to prove his point has made a documentary in Iraq on the country's weapons programs. In an interview with The Associated Press, however, Ritter acknowledged that he did not visit any suspected weapons sites for fear that the film would be used by both sides as propaganda.
Two years ago, Ritter quit the UN weapons inspection team, arguing the West was not trying hard enough to disarm Iraq. Today, he claims that Iraq is the victim of misguided policy. By refusing to lift the sanctions against Iraq - which were imposed after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, provoking the Gulf War - the United States is responsible for a human tragedy, Ritter says.
"The US is pumping up the Iraqi threat in order to justify the multi-billion [dollar] expenditure of their policy of regime removal and continuing sanctions," says Ritter, who could not account for his change of heart. "The American public has been victimized by their policy of demonization."
The sanctions against Iraq have contributed to the country's economic decline and subsequent malnutrition, disease, and death, especially among children, critics say. In 1996, the UN Security Council eased the sanctions slightly to allow Iraq to sell oil as long as part of the income buys essentials for its people. Early this month, a coalition of some 90 church and other groups from across the US held demonstrations at the White House to protest the sanctions.
Butler does not believe that the new inspectors will ever be allowed into Iraq. The UN resolution to put together another inspection team was adopted six months ago, but Iraq has yet to give the inspectors permission to enter. Butler says Iraq is taking advantage of division among the five permanent members of the Security Council - the US, Great Britain, Russia, China, and France - to block the mission.
"This council is in crisis and is showing itself unable to deliver its own will," Butler says. "Only if the permanent five stands together politically will Saddam have to rethink its position."
On the record, most diplomats at the Security Council voice a desire to see the inspectors leave for Baghdad soon. Off the record, few say it will happen.
The Iraqi issue remains mired in the politics of oil. France and Russia are pushing to lift sanctions - they want to capitalize on close ties with Iraq to profit from its oil industry. The US and Great Britain, on the other hand, have oil ties with allies Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and, therefore, an interest in keeping Iraq isolated. Add to this the refusal of Iraq to cooperate with the UN, and some say there is slim likelihood that the sanctions will be lifted any time soon.
"Iraq has taken an autistic stance, and the US is fine with the actual sanctions," says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are important factors at play that keep the issue deadlocked in the mid- and maybe long-term."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society