Iraq still has upper hand

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By Friday (Sept. 1), the new man who is to ensure that Iraq doesn't have and can't make weapons of mass destruction will tell the UN Security Council he's ready for business.

Unhappily, the odds are very much against him. Iraq says it won't admit his inspectors. If it did, it would hedge them in so tightly their work would be meaningless. Should he in either case ask the Security Council to compel Iraq's compliance, the Council would not act.

The fault doesn't lie with Hans Blix of Sweden, appointed last March as executive chairman of UNMOVIC, the UN's new Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. He is an old pro at arms control, a longtime head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who most recently blew the whistle on North Korea's nuclear pretensions. UNMOVIC replaces UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission, set up in 1991 to defang Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

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Saddam accepted rigorous inspection as the price of a cease-fire in the Gulf War he'd launched by invading Kuwait. But from that moment, he set about secretly rebuilding his chemical, biological, and, ultimately, nuclear weapons together with the missiles to carry them. The victorious powers, for their own reasons, guaranteed Iraq's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. Doggedly, Saddam used that guarantee against UNSCOM.

He blocked, harassed, and misled what was meant to be immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access to all places and all people involved in weapons production. Loudly complaining that UNSCOM was an agency of American espionage victimizing Iraq, he maneuvered the UN into agreeing to special, kid-glove treatment of installations he labeled "sensitive" and "presidential" sites. By December 1998, Saddam had, in effect, neutered the inspection process. The US and Britain unleashed four days of air attacks on military targets to teach him a lesson. He threw the inspectors out of Iraq altogether - and suffered no consequences.

Should Saddam allow UNMOVIC to send in new inspectors, they'll find themselves behind the eight ball. All procedural restrictions the UN had accepted for inspections on the ground and from the air remain in force. Scores of monitoring cameras, air samplers, and other sensors installed at suspicious locations no longer work. In the past 18 months, Iraq has been free to build or change anything at old or new military-industrial facilities.

Other changes play into Saddam's hand. The Security Council creating UNMOVIC reversed the burden of proof, from obliging Iraq to show it has abandoned weapons of mass destruction to making UNMOVIC prove it has not. Saddam's strategy is clear: no visible violations, so no guilt, therefore economic sanctions meant to force disarmament are misapplied and should be lifted.

Sanctions are central to the unfolding drama. Saddam has blamed them for the misery of the Iraqi people, even though he could have ended it in 1991 by really disarming. The new resolution allows him to sell all the oil he needs to buy food, medicine, and relief supplies, but he wants the trade restrictions lifted entirely. With money, he can get anything on the shady international arms market. The Security Council, which could stop it, is split to the point of impotence. Three of the five permanent members, Russia, France, and China, advocate first suspending, then cancelling the already leaky sanctions. They'd veto harsh collective measures by the UN; and the US certainly wouldn't act on its own again, especially in a time of political transition. Mischief is once more afoot in the Gulf.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a former correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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