The Clinton administration is expressing fresh worries that Iraq - after a year without United Nations weapons inspections - may have resumed its illicit arms-development programs.
A new White House report to Congress says American intelligence is monitoring with concern activities at Iraqi facilities "capable of producing WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and long-range ballistic missiles."
It is also watching possible Iraqi efforts to secretly buy "dual use" materials - substances and technologies that have both civilian and weapons applications.
The report stops short of concluding that Iraq has resumed its arms programs, saying "there are limits to what insights can be gained" without on-site monitors. Yet it contrasts sharply with recent assertions by US officials that they have "no evidence" Iraq is resuming WMD development.
The report could bolster the administration's case at the United Nations for reinstituting aggressive weapons inspections in Iraq. At the same time, however, it may bring new pressure from Capitol Hill to step up efforts to topple the Iraqi leader.
"Saddam Hussein has shown no hesitation in developing WMD in the past, and it is prudent to assume that he is still intent on such development," says the report, a copy of which was obtained by the Monitor. The report was sent to Congress Aug. 25 as required by a 1999 spending bill.
Any attempt by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to "reconstitute" prohibited weapons programs would cross one of several "red lines" for US military action set by President Clinton following Anglo-American airstrikes on Iraq last December.
Operation Desert Fox followed a four-month Iraqi blockade of inspections by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which pulled out of Baghdad Dec. 16, the day the airstrikes began. Washington says the airstrikes "degraded" Iraq's ability to restart its WMD program, but acknowledges that they were likely not destroyed.
Since then, almost unnoticed, a low-level air war has raged, with US and British aircraft hitting Iraqi air defenses that almost daily challenge their enforcement of no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.
But the Clinton administration has refrained from large-scale military action. Such a move would ignite an international outcry. It would jeopardize already difficult US diplomatic efforts to win UN Security Council approval of a new inspection operation and maintenance of economic sanctions on Baghdad.
Iraq agreed to abandon its illicit arms programs under the settlement of the 1991 Gulf War, but UNSCOM says Iraq continues to hide components and documents. US military strikes would also further strain US forces stretched by overseas deployments.
And they would seriously damage already difficult relations with China, Russia, the European allies, and the Arab world as Washington seeks their cooperation on other key issues.
Yet the report may bring new criticism from lawmakers in Congress. Critics could use it to bolster charges that administration isn't doing enough to check Saddam's military ambitions.
"Since the beginning of this year, we have noted signs of a reduced priority in US policy toward Iraq," wrote three key Republicans, including Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and three Democrats in an Aug. 11 letter to Mr. Clinton.
Among the six were Sens. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama, and Robert Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, chairman and lead Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The last six months have been notable for what has not happened rather than for what has been achieved."
Without elaborating, the six asserted "there is considerable evidence that Iraq continues to seek and develop weapons of mass destruction."
Responds an administration official: "The situation is viewed seriously, and it has definitely not fallen off anyone's radar scope."
In its report, the White House recounts a range of measures the US is pursuing to protect against Iraq's resumption of WMD programs. These include working with UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency to improve controls over Baghdad's access to dual-use materials. It also cites efforts to provide information and expertise to UNSCOM, which remains in operation even though it is no longer in Iraq.
"We are concerned by activity at Iraqi sites known to be capable of producing WMD and long-range ballistic missiles, as well as by Iraq's long-established practice of covert procurement activity that could include dual-use items with WMD applications," the report says.
The report did not elaborate on the activity detected by spy satellites and other covert surveillance systems. "In the absence of UN inspectors on the ground, our concerns about the potential meaning of these activities will persist," continues the report.
But it warns that keeping tabs on Iraq is not easy without inspections. And even with them, it would still be "difficult to detect" nuclear-weapons research.
The report comes amid an impasse in the UN Security Council over resuming inspections. Iraq insists that it has terminated its WMD programs, and its demand for an end to economic sanctions has found sympathy with China, Russia, and France.
They favor a gradual lifting of the measures and replacing UNSCOM with an "active monitoring" system that would ensure no future WMD development by Baghdad.
The US supports a British-Dutch proposal to resume an aggressive inspection regime and require that Iraq disclose data and components of previous WMD programs. The proposal holds out the prospect of an end to sanctions once Iraq complies.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society