WASHINGTON — Anybody around here remember UNMOVIC? It's the acronym for the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. It replaced UNSCOM, or United Nations Special Commission, which was kicked out of Iraq in 1998 for being too intrusive. UNMOVIC was never allowed to enter Iraq, but may now get its chance, thanks to Saddam Hussein's astutely timed move to let the commission in.
This is very bad news for President Bush, who talks disarmament, but means regime change. Some of the momentum for action against the Iraqi dictator generated by the president's hard-hitting speech to the UN assembly Sept. 12 is already starting to dissipate. And it is very unlikely that, especially after Mr. Hussein has had four unmonitored years to refine his arts of concealment, UNMOVIC will be able to root out any existing weapons-development programs.
Unlike UNSCOM, staffed by experts from national governments with access to home intelligence sources, UNMOVIC works for the United Nations and is subject to UN bureaucracy. It will not be able to carry out the kind of aggressive surveillance that UNSCOM did. According to The New York Times, UNSCOM once flew a U-2 spy plane over a site it was preparing to inspect and photographed the parade of Iraqi vehicles carrying off the material being worked on at that site. The UNMOVIC team is actually two teams 63 biochemical experts of 27 nationalities based in New York and 16 nuclear experts based in Vienna.
Whether they are all available after four years of waiting remains to be seen. Under the UN resolution that created UNMOVIC, once on the ground in Iraq the commission gets 60 days to develop a work plan to submit to the UN Secretariat. Then, it has six months to reach preliminary conclusions about whether Iraq is working on forbidden weapons.
American experts doubt that much will be learned. But, more to the point, the timetable comes nowhere near meeting the timetable of the Bush administration, which is apparently thinking of some kind of military operation to oust Hussein before the end of the year. In short, the Bush team has its work cut out for it, trying to trump Hussein's ace.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.