United Nations weapons inspectors face all but insurmountable problems as they prepare a new mission to hunt down Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenal, according to former inspectors.
The gravest obstacle is that neither of the principal antagonists appears keen that the inspections whose success is all that could forestall war should work. Iraq has a long record of seeking to deceive inspectors by concealing its weapons programs; the United States is adamant that its policy is Hussein's removal, not simply his disarmament.
The inspectors are likely to be given new orders by the UN Security Council in a resolution to be presented within the next few days by Britain or the US. The British government is due to release a dossier Tuesday containing evidence of Iraq's biological and chemical arsenal.
In Washington's eyes "inspections were a tool for containment," says Charles Duelfer, former deputy chief of the UN Special Com- mission (UNSCOM) that ran inspections in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. "Now they are a tool for replacement of the regime."
Iraq, while inviting inspectors back, has shown no signs of new honesty in explaining unresolved questions about its biological weapons program in particular. In a speech read to the UN General Assembly last week, Saddam Hussein denied his country has weapons of mass destruction.
Hans Blix, the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), will meet Iraqi officials in Vienna on Sept. 30th to discuss practical arrangements for renewed inspections. The last team of UN inspectors withdrew from Iraq in 1998 after accusing Baghdad of noncooperation.
More important, however, is whether the Iraqi government intends to resume its past practice of hiding weapons programs until inspectors' detective work reveals them. Iraq announced Saturday it would not allow inspectors unfettered access to presidential compounds.
President Bush made his conditions clear in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, when he said that "if the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and related material."
That language echoed the original UN Security Council resolutions in 1991, following Iraq's surrender at the end of the Gulf War. Over the following seven years, as Baghdad repeatedly sidestepped those resolutions, international concern focused more on how far the Iraqi authorities were cooperating with the inspectors than on their failure to disarm.
If UNMOVIC begins work in Iraq, "the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, it's up to Iraq," says Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the inspection team. "Blix has said that he does not think the Security Council will accept going back to catandmouse games."
"The inspectors need an honest declaration by the Iraqis of what they have now and what they did in the past," says Gary Milhollin, an Iraq expert at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Disarmament in Washington. "They have never received such a document."
If one is forthcoming now, it would likely take inspectors about a year to verify, says Mr. Milhollin. But "if Iraq doesn't come through, sending inspectors is probably a waste of time," he adds. "If Iraq is still concealing things, the chances of uncovering them are fairly small."
That view is widely shared among former inspectors such as Tim Trevan, who was political adviser to UNSCOM from 1992 to 1995. "I'm very pessimistic," he says. "I think the inspectors will have an impossible task ... if Iraq goes back to the old game of cheat and retreat."
Though some senior US officials deride any inspection regime as worthless, UNSCOM did discover and destroy all Iraq's Scud missiles, its nuclear weapons program, and most of its chemical and biological arms. An independent panel set up in 1999 by the UN Security Council to evaluate the results of inspections found that "the bulk of Iraq's proscribed weapons programs has been eliminated."
But UNMOVIC will have great difficulty in tracking down what remains hidden, and finding whatever the Iraqis may have rebuilt in the four years since inspectors withdrew, according to former inspectors and other experts.
Iraqi scientists have improved their methods of hiding laboratories, making them mobile, dividing production work among a number of small, hardtofind labs, and lining underground facilities with lead to shield radiological signatures from nuclear work.
Iraqi security is expected to try just as hard to infiltrate UNMOVIC as it did successfully to penetrate UNSCOM, giving Baghdad advance warning of where inspections are planned. Although UNSCOM carried out hundreds of "no notice" inspections, only a few were genuine surprises, according to Mr. Duelfer.
At the same time, some observers fear that UNMOVIC rules designed to prevent governments from using its work as cover for espionage may limit its ability to find and interpret evidence.
The US, British, and other national intelligence agencies used to give intelligence to UNSCOM inspectors whom they trusted often their own military or security personnel on loan to the inspectorate. In return, those inspectors would run their findings by the agencies who had helped them. This sparked Iraqi accusations of espionage by inspectors.
UNMOVIC rules say only one official will be authorized to receive outside secret intelligence and that "the flow of intelligence must be one way only."
"This will limit what governments are prepared to give, and what the UN understands of what it gets" argues Milhollin. "They are turning down a tremendous intelligence analytical opportunity."
Both enthusiasts and skeptics agree, however, that inspectors should go to Iraq. For Scott Ritter, a former UNSCOM inspector who believes Iraq is largely disarmed and that Washington is seeking a pretext to invade, "inspectors have to go in, if for no other reason than to delay a war."
"If there is any value to sending inspectors it is to go through the paces for the international community," says Mr. Trevan. "The Americans must give a nod of respect to the UN and the world order, so as to be able to say that they tried existing mechanisms."
Some observers expect the Iraqis to be cooperative with inspectors, in a bid to forestall an American attack. By inviting the inspectors back "Iraq has decided to try to divide the international community, and to a certain extent they may cooperate for a while" in order to seek international sympathy, suggests Duelfer.
"If the Security Council does not remain resilient and united in backing the inspection process and compelling Iraq to meet its obligations, all the efforts of UNMOVIC and the IAEA, no matter how imaginative they might be, will come to naught," warned Terry Taylor, a former UNSCOM inspector, at a recent Carnegie Endowment discussion of inspections.
In the meantime, Blix and his team stand between war and peace in Iraq. "The trigger is going to be in Blix's hand, and by extension in the hand of every inspector," says Duelfer. "It's a horrible position to be in."
The UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) at a glance:
Mandate: To seek out chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons, as well as missiles with a range of over 90 miles.
Head: Hans Blix, former Swedish foreign minister, who came out of retirement to lead the commission.
Founding: In December 1999, a year after the previous Iraq inspectorate, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), was accused of spying, and withdrawn.
Staff: 63 biochemical experts of 27 nationalities in New York, 16 nuclear experts in Vienna, and about 230 outside experts it can call on.
Power: Reports to the UN Security Council. While UNSCOM was allowed to gather and act on intelligence information according to The New York Times, it flew a U-2 spy plane over one site it was to inspect and photographed Iraqi vehicles carting off nuclear material UNMOVIC won't be able to do that kind of surveillance.
Partner: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which monitors Iraq to see if it is developing weapons of mass destruction.