Can tough inspections avert war?

Baghdad faces a Saturday deadline to begin destruction of ballistic missiles that exceed UN-defined range limits.

As France and Germany ready Mirage jets and drones to step up aerial inspection of suspected Iraqi weapons sites, arms control experts differ over whether a tighter leash could be a viable alternative to bombing Iraq.

The experts are divided - just as world leaders are - between those who see continued weapons inspections as doomed to fail and those who think they deserve a chance to show they can work, in toughened form.

The next test for the inspections approach will come Saturday, when Baghdad must begin handing over ballistic missiles that exceed UN-stipulated range limits. Iraqi compliance would comfort supporters of continued inspections. Defiance would give Washington an added argument for war.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic battle over Iraq is intensifying. At the UN Security Council this week, the US and Britain are preparing to submit a resolution that would pave the way to war, and France and Germany are girding to resist it.

"Things being as they are," said French President Jacques Chirac Friday, "everything argues for the fact that the goal can be achieved by peaceful means, that is to say by inspections and not by military means."

"Saddam Hussein wants time," retorted President George Bush on Saturday. "He'll play like he's going to disarm. He has no intention of disarming."

The problem, says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, is that "the chances are the inspectors will find bits and pieces" of forbidden weaponry. "That will prove to opponents of war that inspections are working," Mr. Milhollin says, "and it will prove to the Americans that Saddam is hiding things."

France, Germany, and Russia have proposed beefing up the UN inspection teams in Iraq, reinforcing their numbers, increasing aerial surveillance, extending theirpurview to customs posts, and creating a special UN force to guard suspect sites. "That is worth trying because there is no major pressing reason to go to war without further delay," says François Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Nothing in Colin Powell's speech to the UN or in [chief inspector Hans] Blix's two reports suggests that if we don't go to war in the next three weeks we are in deep trouble."

The UN inspectors have asked for more time. "We have not finished our work in Iraq," said Mohamad ElBaradei, the top UN nuclear arms inspector, on Saturday. "We are not getting full cooperation from Iraq, but we hope to get it next week. We still believe that war is not inevitable."

As Mr. Blix said recently, however, "the principal problem is not the number of inspectors, but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side."

Without such cooperation "even more inspectors and time will not be successful," says Olivia Bosch, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who is now an analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "There is no point in giving them more time unless they give more substance."

The threat of imminent invasion is the only thing that might persuade Hussein to admit to his banned weapons programs, analysts agree. The recent buildup of some 200,000 US and British troops in the Gulf region has been critical to ensuring that Baghdad has opened doors to inspectors that had always been shut before, they say.

"There has to be a realistic threat attached to inspections," says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When you say 'disarm or else,' you have to make it clear that the 'or else' is war."

But even such coercive inspections would probably provide the world with only a "mixed picture" of Iraqi military capabilities, says Gary Samore, a former Clinton White House aide who is now director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "We could have pretty good confidence that Iraq couldn't resurrect its nuclear program, its ballistic missiles, nor make chemical weapons in bulk," he says. "But we would not be able to be confident about biological weapons or about research and development."

"Iraq does not pose an imminent threat to its neighbors, but if you think Saddam Hussein is prepared to provide things to terrorists, that would make him an imminent threat" to the West, Mr. Samore adds. "The concern is that Iraq could revive its capabilities over time, and that containment would eventually erode," he says. "Once the troops go home, what's to stop Baghdad thinking that the pressure is off and gradually slicing away at access [for the inspectors] - as they did between 1991 and 1998?"

In a country as large as Iraq, where officials are practiced at deception, "inspections are a dead end unless the Iraqis decide they are going to disarm," says the Wisconsin Project's Milhollin. "The real choice is between war and containment." Containment has worked for the past 12 years, but he says he doubts it can last.

An indefinite containment policy would require not only inspectors working continuously, backed by the implicit threat of force from hundreds of thousands of troops on Iraq's borders, but also a much stricter trade embargo than currently exists, to keep all dual-use machinery out of Hussein's hands; "great intelligence to sniff out shipments" of proscribed materials; and "luck," says Milhollin.

Supporters of continued inspections accept that they could not provide total assurances. "It would probably never be possible to obtain 100 percent confidence that all Iraqi chemical and biological capabilities had been eliminated," says Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "But 100 percent certainty may not be worth the costs of war," he argues. "For me, the current inspections regime can sufficiently contain the threat ... if Iraq exhibits greater cooperation, and it has been doing so under international diplomatic and military pressure.

"The current inspection regime has just begun," he adds. "We are in the middle of an unfinished process."

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