The head of the UN Special Commission tracking disarmament in Iraq is right. The regime in Baghdad, itself, holds the keys to ending economic sanctions.
Richard Butler noted that his UNSCOM inspectors were still not getting the data they needed to verify progress toward eliminating chemical and biological weapons, in particular. He pointed out that the UN team two years ago came across artillery shells filled with active mustard gas, a chemical warfare agent. Saddam Hussein continues to claim that he destroyed all such weapons back in 1991.
Are there more? What about the even stickier issue of unaccounted-for supplies of material to fabricate biological warheads? Mr. Butler, like his predecessor, has found it difficult, to put it mildly, to get clear answers from the Iraqi government. Physical evidence, documents, and personal testimony from those involved in the weapons are needed.
Thus the UN Security Council was right this week to retain the sanctions that so tightly restrict Iraq's economy. Sanctions, in this case, are the best available means of pressuring an aggressor regime to relinquish weapons of mass destruction. Such relinquishment was agreed to at the end of the Gulf War, and it shouldn't be hedged.
That said, there has to be honest acknowledgement of positive steps taken by Iraq. The country's nuclear weapons program has been largely dismantled. And, thanks to diligent diplomacy by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Saddam has agreed to open so-called "presidential sites" to arms inspectors (though controversy swirls around repeat inspection visits to the sites). These steps are not sufficient, as yet, to warrant a significant easing of sanctions. But the time for that could come - sooner rather than later, we hope. The US should beware giving the impression that it may never OK such an easing.
Humanitarian concern about the burden borne by average Iraqis must be part of the policy calculus. This doesn't require an immediate lifting of sanctions, as Baghdad's spokesmen argue. But it does require a determined effort to see that the current program of limited Iraqi oil sales to buy food and other humanitarian supplies is, in fact, relieving suffering. This means closer cooperation with, and from, Iraqi officials - not always forthcoming. (It shouldn't be forgotten that Saddam has an interest in making it appear that such aid is not working.)
It also means increased support for private efforts to send emergency supplies to Iraq, such as the shipments organized by the US agency, AmeriCares. Washington should encourage such efforts.
The US and the UN have to show that a policy of dual humanitarian concerns can work: a clear concern to deprive an outlaw government of weapons that endanger its region and the world, and a concern that sanctions against that government don't devastate innocent civilians.