Burden of proof shifts now to Iraq

Gaps in Iraqi report sway world opinion against Baghdad.

Whether war breaks out in Iraq now probably rests as much with Saddam Hussein as it does with George W. Bush.

For months, much of the world has criticized the United States for its bellicose intentions and warmongering in the Iraqi standoff.

Now a degree of consensus exists in the West around one simple but crucial point: that Iraq has left major gaps in its official declaration to the United Nations about its weapons programs. As a result, the burden of proof in the court of world opinion, about the veracity of each side's motives and the likelihood of conflict, has shifted - at least temporarily - from Washington to Baghdad.

"If we had gone to war in August," says a US official familiar with Iraq policy, "the war would have been ours. Now if we go to war, it will be Hussein's war."

None of this is to say that war has become any more or less inevitable. It hasn't - yet. The likelihood of conflict will depend in part on what Hussein does from here.

Ominously, the Iraqi leader is not known for making wise strategic decisions. In the early 1980s, for example, he thought he could easily win a war with Iran. When he invaded Kuwait in 1990, he thought no one would care. He grossly miscalculated both times, at a devastating cost to his country.

In large part, the possibility of war will hinge on what Hussein turns over to the UN between now and the end of January. It will also pivot on how much intelligence the US and Britain have about Iraqi weapons that would show further "material breaches" in Baghdad's declarations.

Applying pressure

Over the weekend, the US and Britain continued to apply pressure on Baghdad to turn over valid information, following Friday's proclamations by both the UN's head weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, that Iraq had left major holes in its first round of weapons reporting to the UN.

Britain, which reportedly has the best spies in Iraq, as well as the US, began turning over more sensitive intelligence to Mr. Blix's team over the weekend. And they further pressed the UN inspectors to take Iraqi scientists who are knowledgeable about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs out of the country to interview them.

The US is heightening its military pressure on Iraq as well. It announced plans to send 50,000 additional troops to the region in early January, as well as activate as many as 250,000 reservists. Combined with those already in the region, experts say, that would be enough to go to war.

The US is also intensifying its diplomatic efforts with Turkey, which up till now has been reluctant to help the US in its prosecution of a war on Iraq. Washington wants to at least use the bases in eastern Turkey as a stopover for final troop deployments from Germany. Those troops reportedly would be flown into Turkey by military transport, then helicoptered into northern Iraq for a ground invasion.

"When those troops in Germany move, that will be the sign [that war is about to begin]," says David Newton, a former ambassador to Iraq. "The US will not move all those troops out there without using them."

Morever, in an apparent effort to step up government preparations, President Bush canceled his mid-January trip to Africa and will be working on his State of the Union address that is scheduled to be delivered Jan. 28 - one year after he first named Iraq as part of the "axis of evil."

Significantly, it is also one day after the UN weapons inspectors are to deliver their 60-day report on Iraq's weapons programs. Most officials and experts doubt that Hussein - because of his past record - will fully comply. "I don't think war is inevitable," says Jeswald Salacuse, an expert in conflict resolution at Tuft's University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "I think there is a possibility to negotiate - not a very high one - but it's still there."

He says that Hussein could, for example, allow weapons inspectors to visit a facility where his scientists are working on weapons programs. The inspectors could then destroy the material. And the UN, or US, could point out that Hussein's program had been dangerous, but that he'd allowed inspectors in to destroy it. That could create a negotiating space.

But the problem, these experts say, is both Hussein's past record and the tendency of his regime to make ill-informed decisions.

"I'm not sure that [Hussein], at the end of the day, will really understand what he's up against," says the US official familiar with Iraq. Hussein doesn't travel at all, and the people around him don't either. They are not well-educated or well-read. "And because they've been so locked down and restricted, they don't even know what they don't know," the official says. "Their ability to process information isn't any better than his."

Operating in a cocoon

Nor is his record auspicious. After Hussein invaded Kuwait and held several Western and Japanese nationals as human shields, for example, the UN passed a resolution that gave him 45 days to get out of Kuwait. Instead of withdrawing, he released the hostages near the 45-day mark.

"He thought if he let [the hostages] all go home by Christmas, that Desert Storm wouldn't happen," the US official says. "He didn't understand. Even if he had pulled back to Mutlaa ridge, the escarpment that overlooks Kuwait City, he would have had a major oil field, access to the Gulf islands, everything he wanted - and he wouldn't have had Desert Storm."

True to form, the experts say, Hussein is now trying to cozy up to Kuwait. Sunday, Iraq turned over four paintings and gifts that belonged to the Kuwaiti royal family. Iraq previously returned airplanes and other items as required by the Gulf War cease-fire terms. Earlier this month, Hussein apologized to the people of Kuwait for his invasion - and urged them to struggle against foreign armies, most likely a reference to US troops stationed there.

But this time, he is more alone in his decision than he was in 1991. "[Officials] in the region are telling him, ''this is his final opportunity,' " the official says. " 'If you blow this one, we're not going to be here to help you.' "

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