How US May Lose Grip on Iraq

Attacks could miss deadly weapons, and likely end UN probe of whole Iraq military.

Behind a door of reinforced steel at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, much of the real work of the UN weapons-inspections teams takes place.

Deep inside, banks of television screens are said to be set up, on which inspectors watch some 300 sensitive sites across the country to ensure that Iraq complies with UN Security Council resolutions to give up its weapons of mass destruction. Chemical and radiation units at some locations sample the air, and X-rays and satellite images are used.

This elaborate weapons-inspection regime was designed to eradicate Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic missile capability. Iraq was forced to accept it with the Gulf War cease-fire. By and large, with nudging, it has complied with inspections.

President Clinton says that the work of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarmament has done more to erase such weapons from Iraq's arsenals than the entire Gulf War air campaign. And even as the current crisis unfolds - with one American-led team prevented from visiting sites the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein deems "sensitive" - other inspection teams work unhindered.

Officials in Washington say that the use - or threat - of force is meant to compel Iraq to allow unfettered access to all sites. Repeated denial of that access has been taken by Washington and the UN to mean that Iraq still harbors chemical and biological weapons that present a real, immediate danger to its neighbors.

But in the view of many Western analysts and diplomats here - who all declined to be identified further - the lack of an evident "endgame" by Washington means the risks of such an attack now far outweigh any benefit.

With a US and British armada building in the Persian Gulf, some diplomats warn that a military strike could put UN weapons-monitoring at risk, reverse its successes, and jeopardize humanitarian efforts meant to offset the impact of sanctions.

"If there is a military strike, the first result will be that the inspectors will be out of Iraq," says one diplomat. "As far as disarmament, we will lose our grip on Iraq. UNSCOM is the only instrument to bring Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction."

Analysts say that this point appears to have been lost in the flurry of diplomatic activity and strong signals from the Clinton administration that it does not expect a peaceful solution.

One source with experience in Washington notes that "all crises have two different dynamics," one on the ground and one in the US capital. "At a certain point, Washington gets a head of steam, and it doesn't matter what happens on the ground," the source says.

Other analysts say the costly dispatch of 2,000 US marines and more fighter planes may make an attack inevitable.

"Did they pass the point of no return?" asks a Western source. "I'm afraid [an attack] may now become a face-saving measure for Washington."

The current crisis was prefaced by events last November. Then, angry at what it said was the top-heavy presence of Americans in the UNSCOM inspection teams, Iraq kicked out American inspectors. UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, an Australian, decided to withdraw all inspectors.

A Russian diplomatic mission defused the crisis with promises from the UN that teams would be more balanced. Some Western sources here believe that the US regrets not taking the issue to a head in November. The singling out of US inspectors was, they say, a clear breach by Iraq of the UN resolutions. Today, says one, the situation is much less clear.

Last month, Iraq took issue with a team led by American Scott Ritter, a US Marine intelligence officer during the 1991 Gulf War. Branding Mr. Ritter a US spy, Iraqi officials barred his team from visiting "sensitive sites" for reasons of "sovereignty." The team left a day early, but other teams - none of whom have tried to visit the eight "presidential" sites - continue to work.

Senior Iraqi officials have told diplomats here privately that they are willing to allow these sites to be inspected, but that they must be treated differently. A group of some 30 Western diplomats was recently taken by the Foreign Ministry to several palaces.

These diplomats were surprised that their visit was not filmed by local or foreign press, says one who took part. A previous visit led by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in December was widely covered.

Iraq argues that UN Security Council resolutions say that Iraq's integrity and sovereignty must be maintained. It also claims that the latest crisis is a "fabrication" by the US, and some non-Iraqi sources here say that the events of January could not have been better designed to provoke a crisis. Besides the makeup of the Ritter team, UNSCOM chief Butler went on the "media offensive," analysts here say.

Though Butler was later told by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to tone down his remarks, the chief weapons inspector told The New York Times that Iraq was up to "dirty tricks," and that Iraq had enough biological weapons material and missiles to "blow away Tel Aviv." Standing near US and Israeli flags during a talk to American Jewish leaders, Butler took the same tone. One diplomat says the Security Council was shocked to be hearing such statements in the media, since they were not borne out in Butler's reports to the Council.

Despite the current crisis, some point to the success of UNSCOM. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna says Iraq's nuclear program has been dismantled, and most of its ballistic missiles are accounted for.

UNSCOM officials have said they are still anxious about the scale of Iraq's biological weapons capabilities. Presidential adviser Amer al-Saadi, who headed the Iraqi team at last week's "technical evaluation" talks with UN and outside experts, said Sunday that Iraq had given all its data about "precursors" and the nerve gas VX to the UN. But he added that the foreign experts said such talks might be "premature."

Inspectors have destroyed 28,000 chemical weapons, 125,000 gallons of live chemical-weapons agents, 48 operational missiles, six missile launchers, 30 "special warheads" with chemical and biological weapons, and factories and items for the production of such weapons.

"We should not expect Iraq to just lay all these things out for us - no country would," says a diplomat. "But all this has been done because of UNSCOM. What is going to happen if, after a US military strike, weapons inspectors are made to leave, and Iraq does not comply? What then?"

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