Will Iraq conceal or cooperate?

UN weapons inspectors are back in business, preparing for probing work of sensitive sites as US military waits.

The first order of business for United Nations weapons inspectors, when they redeployed to Iraq Nov. 17, was to pry off the metal plates they had sealed onto their office doors a week ago, when they withdrew as Iraq faced the threat of US strikes.

UN weapons inspectors are back to work following Iraq's backdown - and are expected to quickly put Iraqi promises of total cooperation to the test.

First, they will check all the monitoring equipment they left behind. Then inspectors are likely to take their hunt into uncharted territory, close to the heart of President Saddam Hussein's regime, to expose remaining illicit weapons and their components - some of which are believed by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to be still hidden by an elaborate "concealment mechanism." UNSCOM chief Richard Butler has warned Baghdad that this is Iraq's "last chance" to cooperate.

Although Washington has put its military buildup on hold in the Persian Gulf, it's watching for any Iraqi infraction that could justify a military strike.

Despised by Iraq as a spy outfit for America and Israel, and charged with disarming all Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the role of UNSCOM is by definition confrontational.

Iraq's fight against disclosure

It is the most intrusive disarmament regime in history, mandated by the UN Security Council as part of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement to root out illicit weapons any way it can. Iraq has fought full disclosure, and for four years denied any biological warfare program at all, though punishing UN sanctions can't be lifted until it complies.

Overcoming these "impediments," says UNSCOM's Oct. 9 semiannual report, has "obliged" the commission to make "extraordinary efforts."

Still, so effective has UNSCOM been that more Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed than during the entire Gulf War.

Today Iraq is but "a shadow of its former [military] self," says Scott Ritter, an American who resigned in August as head of the UNSCOM anticoncealment team.

But US and UN officials believe that, unwatched, Iraq could rebuild nonconventional weapons and again threaten its neighbors - including Israel, which absorbed 39 Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War - within months.

The inspectors, however, are often criticized by Western diplomats and others as behaving like cowboys, thereby encouraging standoffs that can lead to full-blown crises.

"UNSCOM has a lot of defects, but it has caused Iraq to reveal many things," says a European diplomat who is critical of UNSCOM's behavior.

"What is important here," he continues, "is the permanent [weapons] monitoring: That is the only way to keep Iraq under control."

Though any bombing campaign would risk the permanent expulsion of weapons inspectors, President Clinton affirmed the important inspection role on Nov. 15, while accepting Saddam's decision to readmit the UNSCOM inspectors without conditions.

The inspectors "have been and remain the most effective tool to uncover, destroy, and prevent Iraq from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them," he said.

Washington intervention

Washington's role has been less than consistent, however. It publicly insisted last February that Iraq would face the "severest consequences" at the first sign of intransigence.

But Mr. Ritter and news reports indicate that over the past year, senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, have directly intervened several times to prevent further crises by seeking to block sensitive UNSCOM inspections - the kind expected to take place within days.

Such "manipulation" has "undermined" UNSCOM's efforts, charges Ritter, who says the US has made a "fatal error of judgment" by allowing the inspectors to return without specific declarations about outstanding issues.

"I don't understand why they are putting UNSCOM back in because nothing has changed," he told the Monitor in a phone interview. "What the United States needed to do was take advantage of the leverage that it had by having this military hammer poised over the head of the Iraqis."

"What do we have today?" he asks. "UNSCOM going back in. Iraq's had months to move everything around. They will find nothing.... What we are going to see is ... the faade of access, when the reality is that we know the concealment mechanism."

Ritter has been under investigation by the FBI for his close covert links with Israeli intelligence services, which he told Israel's Haaretz newspaper were "absolutely essential" to cracking Iraqi concealment codes.

The most sensitive inspections planned - reportedly to a Special Republican Guard battalion a year ago, among others - were called off by the US because such inspections "ratchet it up to the ultimate level of confrontation," he told the newspaper.

"Because there is no way Iraq will allow us to inspect the people who need to be inspected," he said. "We're talking about the people closest to Saddam Hussein."

UNSCOM worked unfettered for only four months of the last 12. After an 11th-hour deal reached by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February, Iraqi cooperation resulted in very close work - and rising Iraqi expectations that sanctions would soon be lifted.

But for Iraq, those hopes evaporated with what they called "trivial" new questions.

What's been done, what remains

UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have so far accounted for or destroyed more than 800 medium-range missiles and thousands of warheads and bombs of all kinds - including advanced efforts to build a nuclear device.

More than 200 sites are under constant surveillance, and more than 4,000 items are tagged.

So what "threat" remains from Iraq? Baghdad says it is disarmed already and that it played straight with Security Council resolutions. But UNSCOM's October report lists several issues:

* Missiles: Iraq says it destroyed seven indigenously produced missiles on its own in 1991, but inspectors have found no remnants at declared destruction sites.

Remnants of 30 homemade warheads have not been found. Iraq, the report says, refuses to discuss the issue of missile propellants.

* Chemical weapons: More than 500 mustard-gas shells declared by Iraq have yet to be found. Hundreds more aerial bombs remain unaccounted for, including some with biological agents.

A document taken by an Iraqi official from a chief inspector in July specifies that Iraq's declared figure of special munitions during the war against Iran was overblown - possibly meaning that Iraq may be hiding an undeclared stockpile.

UNSCOM chief Mr. Butler was told, the reports says, that "Iraq would not, indeed would never, give the Commission the document."

* Biological weapons: The most problematic file. Four recent "final" disclosures by Iraq were each found by expert committees to be "incomplete, inadequate and technically flawed." Details about quantities of growth media are "full of uncertainties."

* Nuclear weapons: Ritter asserts that Iraq has three implosion-type nuclear devices that need only a fissionable core of highly-enriched uranium to be active.

But it has been three years since the dismantling of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, nearly closing the IAEA file. A spokesman in Vienna on Nov. 17 noted that Ritter did not officially deal with Iraq's nuclear file, and said that the IAEA had never before reported to the Security Council the existence of any three such devices.

Despite these US and UN concerns, though, strong friends of Iraq such as France and Russia say that Iraq has done enough, and are pushing for sanctions to be lifted. The UNSCOM report anticipates the possibility: "These [concealment] actions by Iraq may have the ultimate effect that the Commission will be obliged to conclude that it is unable to provide 100 per cent verification."

* Staff writer Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.

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