UN report on Iraq: grist for many mills

UN releases its interim report on weapon inspections.

United Nations weapons chiefs Monday report to the Security Council on Iraq's compliance to disarm - providing a document that is unlikely to resolve any debates.

The report's conclusions about Iraq's willingness to cooperate are likely to provide ammunition for both pro-war and pro-peace camps.

"Blix is almost off the hook, because no matter what he says, unless he has a true 'smoking gun,' the US will interpret it one way, and countries that don't want to confront Iraq will interpret another," says Andrew Krepinevich, head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell Sunday reaffirmed a US promise not to "rush to judgment" about the report's findings. But he made clear the US "will not shrink from war, if that is required" to disarm Iraq, and that "time is running out."

President George Bush is expected to announce the "final phase" in the Iraq crisis in his State of the Union address tomorrow night, while reportedly providing more time for inspections to continue.

Such a timetable coincides with slower-than-expected US troop deployments, which would be critical to any attack and which point to a late February or early March launch date if Mr. Bush orders war.

The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency will spell out how the UN's nuclear watchdogs systematically followed leads provided by member nations like the US, but will not yield "any great surprises," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Sunday in a phone interview from Vienna. "We have been able to fill in a lot of blanks," she says, noting that the IAEA efforts are mid-course. "So far we have done over 100 inspections, and these have not turned up evidence that there has been any prohibited nuclear activity."

Elusive 'smoking gun'

After two months of renewed inspections, UN weapons chief Hans Blix has said teams have not found a "smoking gun" to confirm US and British assertions that Iraq harbors weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Mr. Blix and IAEA head Mohamed El Barradei say they need more time to do their work. Anti-war activists say more time should also be given for diplomacy and peace initiatives that sources say may include a visit to Iraq by Nelson Mandela, or someone else of similar stature.

Nuclear inspectors say they have uncovered no evidence so far that Iraq has tried to reconstitute its bomb program. But wide gaps in Iraq's accounting of missing WMD material remain.

One reason for the discrepancy - and therefore Baghdad's unwillingness to give up residual WMD capabilities, analysts say - may be Iraq's calculation that Washington will carry out regime change regardless. "What [the Iraqis] have is some scrappy bits of chemical and biological [material], but it's enough to strap to a dirty bomb," says a British analyst who asked not to be named. "They believe they are going to be invaded anyway, so they would rather it happen with opposing troops in chemical-weapons suits, and with a Samson option overshadowing."

Any last-minute deal, he notes, "would have to broker some kind of security guarantee" that Iraq not be attacked, in exchange for Baghdad revealing WMD secrets.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington late last week released a report estimating inspectors would take a year to achieve Iraqi disarmament. It also concluded that if the continued threat of US military force brought this about without war, it would be an "enormous and enormously popular ... victory" for Mr. Bush.

"Only if the administration's true aim is to remove the current government of Iraq as a matter of principle would a turn to war at this moment make sense," the Carnegie report states. "If that is the case, of course the inspection and disarmament process now under way is irrelevant."

Even the possibility of a peaceful solution - rejected by some analysts as unworkable, given an Iraq regime that has sought for years to conceal WMD programs - is energizing the peace camp.

"The need now is to find captains that can take the antiwar ship to its destination," says Hans von Sponeck, the German former head of UN humanitarian operations in Iraq. He is in Baghdad pushing a peace initiative to bring an "eminent statesman" to Iraq.

"The climate is gradually changing: We are going from a season of acceptance [of war], to a season of opposition," Mr. Von Sponeck says, noting the breadth of anti-war sentiment worldwide, including the leaders of US allies France and Germany. The "only hope now is that they see increasing domestic pressure [against war], and a warning that this 'coalition of the willing' - if it existed - is shrinking," he adds.

Von Sponeck would not confirm suggestions from other sources that Mr. Mandela, the respected first president of post-apartheid South Africa, would play a role in creating a "win-win" situation that would both avert a war and ensure disarmament.

Western diplomats say his reputation in Washington and London was damaged by his 1999 embrace of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whose agents were implicated in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner.

Too late for peace proposal?

Many argue it is too late for a peace proposal, that Mr. Hussein can't be trusted, and that the peace-for-disarmament equation already exists. But the US has not explicitly stated it would not launch a war, if Iraq disarmed.

"Bush has already said 'We're not in negotiation mode; [Hussein] has had 11 years to come up with the goods,'" says Andrew Brookes, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"I don't see any scope for a negotiated deal out of this," Mr. Brookes says. "Everybody has said: 'If [Hussein] comes up clean, and everything is got rid of, he stays and nobody invades. That has always been the case."

What the inspectors find - a "final" report is due on Feb. 21 - will almost certainly make a difference in the debate.

The US has begun to supply intelligence about suspected WMD sites. Inspectors last week found 12 empty and undeclared chemical artillery shells, and 3,000 pages of documents, apparently related to past nuclear programs. A visit to Baghdad by Blix and Mr. Al Barradei last weekend led to an Iraqi promise to encourage scientists to be interviewed without Iraqi officials present. But almost all have refused.

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