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How dangerous is Iraq's arsenal?

The White House this week urged a preemptive attack on Iraq, but experts differ on the threat Baghdad poses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2002


The smashed Iraqi laboratory may once have produced a million veterinary vaccines a year, as Saddam Hussein's regime claimed. But in 1998 this site outside Baghdad was ground zero in United Nations efforts to erase Iraq's biological weapons program.

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Armed with the most intrusive arms-control mandate in history, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) destroyed whatever it could find of Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-range missile programs. By some estimates, the seven-year mission disarmed the regime by up to 95 percent.

But what is left? What weapons has Iraq been able to reassemble since UNSCOM departed in late 1998? Those uncertainties lie at the heart of the current debate over possible US military action against Iraq. The key question is this: Could renewed, unfettered weapons inspections contain Iraq and avert war, as many weapons experts say? Or, as the White House argues, is military action the only course that remains?

In the Bush administration's most forceful statement on Iraq yet, Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday argued for a pre-emptive US strike, saying that Baghdad was "very busy enhancing" its capabilities for weapons of mass destruction; that Iraq will acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon;" and that a return of weapons inspectors "would provide no assurance whatsoever."

"The risks of inaction," Mr. Cheney said, "are far greater than the risk of action."

But many analysts – including some ranking congressmen who receive classified intelligence briefings – say they have seen no new evidence to confirm those claims. And even key former UNSCOM officials disagree on what danger Iraq may pose today.

In a search for answers, officials are drawing on the lessons of UNSCOM. In 1991, Iraq declared only a fraction of missile and chemical capabilities, denied any significant nuclear capability – and denied the existence of its entire biological program, which 1998 US figures show created 22,457 gallons of anthrax and 100,393 gallons of botulinum toxin alone.

UNSCOM records show that by 1998 it had accounted for or destroyed 817 of 819 Scud missiles, but could not trace seven Iraqi-made missiles that had been listed as operational at the end of the Gulf War.

Nearly 39,000 chemical munitions and more than 3,000 tons of agents and precursors were destroyed. But never found were 500 mustard-gas shells, 25 "special warheads," 150 aerial bombs, and several hundred tons of chemicals for the nerve agent VX. Expert committees in 1998 found Iraq's so-called "final" disclosures to be "flawed."

While such leftovers are a "marginal" amount of material, says Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish former director of UNSCOM, "there is considerable risk they can produce chemical weapons.

"I have very serious concerns about missiles," says Mr. Ekeus, now head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "We don't know how much they smuggled in there. My theory is that they have built production lines."

Just hours before a three-day American bombing assault in late 1998, the UN withdrew its inspectors. Mr. Hussein has never allowed them to return.

Getting weapons inspectors back into Iraq, says Ekeus, is the only effective solution – a view echoed by Scott Ritter, a former US marine who worked for UNSCOM from 1991 to 1998, leading the team that unraveled Iraqi concealment efforts.

Iraq was 90 to 95 percent disarmed in 1998, Mr. Ritter says, and little has changed since then. "Where is the evidence? All we hear from the administration is that, because Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988, he has weapons of mass destruction," Ritter says. "But we destroyed those chemical factories, and we destroyed the biological facilities. Even if he hid some warheads, they would have degenerated by now."