Weapons Showdown Goes Beyond Iraq

With UN inspections still blocked, the US is denying criticisms that it has weak resolve.

It is a record replete with success: dozens of missiles and launchers destroyed, a secret germ-warfare plant demolished, and tons of other components of one of the deadliest armories ever amassed rendered harmless.

But after eight years of exacting, risk-fraught work, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) may not be allowed to finish its job of unearthing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq's duplicity and 48-day-old blockade of UNSCOM inspections are one reason. Another is enduring pressure from Russia and France, Iraq's largest creditors, to give Baghdad a clean bill of health so sanctions imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait can be lifted.

But the latest blow has come from the United States, UNSCOM's chief patron.

The Clinton administration's apparent retreat from its threat to use force to compel Iraqi compliance with UNSCOM has deprived the inspectors of the only real muscle they had to get into sites suspected of hiding the remains of Baghdad's pre-Gulf War chemical and biological arms programs.

"Under current circumstances, we cannot do the job," says a source close to UNSCOM.

Dangers beyond Saddam

With UNSCOM's future in jeopardy, some experts and US officials fear that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may already feel free to begin producing anew biological and chemical weapons with which to threaten his Persian Gulf neighbors.

Such a development would have an impact far beyond the oil-rich region. UNSCOM is the most far-reaching initiative of its kind, devised to deny a despotic regime weapons of mass destruction. Its collapse, experts say, will prove a lack of international resolve to halt the spread of such weapons, encouraging proliferation and casting doubt on the viability of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and similar treaties.

"This goes beyond Saddam Hussein," says Ruhi Ramazani, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"It goes to the fundamental question of whether the end of the cold war produced a new era in which the international community can act to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Such concerns arise because accords at the center of global nonproliferation efforts - the CWC and bans on nuclear tests and biological weapons - ultimately hinge on enforcement by a unified United Nations Security Council.

The Security Council's inability to agree on Iraq becomes more serious when viewed through the lens of growing missile proliferation and the danger of unpaid Russian experts seeking lucrative employment with countries that want to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"There is more at stake here than just Iraq," warns the source close to UNSCOM. "Can the Security Council cope, as a multilateral body, and see this thing through? If it can't, what does that say about the value of the Security Council, the value of arms control, the value of nonproliferation?"

Charges that UNSCOM is being sidelined have been led by Scott Ritter, a former Marine major who for about seven years oversaw its most intrusive surveys of suspected Iraqi weapons sites. He resigned to protest what he says were deliberate American efforts led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to derail inspections in order to avoid another military showdown with Saddam.

The Clinton administration and senior UN officials vehemently deny Mr. Ritter's charges. US officials also insist that using force to end Iraq's defiance of UNSCOM remains an option despite overwhelming opposition within the Arab world and the Security Council.

Furthermore, they argue, Saddam is trapped in "a strategic box" of no-fly zones and economic sanctions, which will stay in place indefinitely under a US-British-sponsored UN resolution approved last week.

"We will decide how and when to respond to Iraq's actions based on the threat they pose to Iraq's neighbors, to regional security, and to US vital interests," asserts Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk.

Iraq, however, has dug in its heels. Last Wednesday, it threatened to stop UNSCOM monitoring of previously inspected sites unless the Security Council rescinds its decision to maintain sanctions indefinitely.

Ritter's warnings that UNSCOM will ultimately become "an illusion of arms control" are widely shared on Capitol Hill and by many arms-control experts.

These experts say the lack of a forceful United States response to Iraq's blockade of inspections represents a new policy that accepts a gradual rollback in UNSCOM's mission.

Instead, without international support for military action and Iraqi threats to Gulf Arab states, Washington will rely mainly on the sanctions to keep Saddam defanged, they say.

Sanctions debate

"We have nothing left except economic sanctions and that's it, and a lot of people have very serious doubts that those kinds of sanctions can be effective," says Professor Ramazani.

"Sanctions are a self-defeating policy," says Ritter. He contends there has been major leakage in a trade embargo, with Iraq obtaining new computerized metallurgy technology used for producing missiles and other weaponry.

Iraq has also obtained new vehicles for its security forces and spare parts for its air force, and it is secretly shopping on world markets for military hardware, Ritter says.

Iraq's 'endgame'

Apprehensions over UNSCOM's future are being further fueled by the Security Council's offer last week to hold a "comprehensive review" of Iraq's compliance with inspections in return for a resumption of its cooperation.

Many experts see the offer as a fresh opportunity for Iraq to win new constraints on UNSCOM aimed at hastening an end to the sanctions that have devastated its economy and weakened support for Saddam.

"It's the endgame," warns Ritter. "Something has to be done now or we are moving down the wrong path."

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