Inspecting Iraq

US skepticism over plans to resume United Nations arms inspections in Iraq is justified. Iraqi resistance to earlier inspections is all too fresh in mind.

This week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he doubted that a new team of inspectors would be able to probe any deeper than the old one into the secrecy shrouding Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

Such doubts, however, shouldn't deflect US policy.

UN inspectors left Iraq three years ago, just before the US and Britain launched airstrikes to punish Iraq for noncooperation. Their work was far from over. Suspicions abound that chemical and biological weaponry, in particular, remains hidden.

Washington should now get squarely behind the inspection regime that's taking shape under a new UN Security Council mandate. A resumption of inspections, with rules requiring full access to sites within Iraq, is a logical next step in dealing with Baghdad's problematic regime.

If the inspectors were stymied again, the Bush administration would then be on firmer ground to rebuild the coalition against Iraq and take stronger action against Mr. Hussein. The threat of such action should prod Iraq to let the inspectors do their work.

But the clash between Israel and the Palestinians complicates things. Within the region, Hussein can flash his anti-Israel credentials, knowing that none of his Arab neighbors will side with the US against him. He may conclude that inspections can be avoided. Iraq has postponed further talks about the UN plan, though it says it will reschedule.

Seeing this effort through will take patience. Washington should shelve its skepticism – and war plans – and push, with its allies, for new tough-minded inspections. That will best serve US, and world, interests.

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