What might trigger a war with Iraq?

As a two-month effort to hammer out a new UN anti-Iraq resolution nears fruition, concern lingers that wording included by the Americans may serve as "triggers" for use of force against Saddam Hussein.

But exactly what sort of incidents may trigger a US-led military assault remains unclear.

In the past, Baghdad's obstruction and deception have come in forms large and small, say former UN inspectors. Washington may look petty if it cites minor incidents – say, a missing document or a short delay in access – as the final straw.

From the US perspective, for now it boils down to something like a Supreme Court justice's famous definition of pornography: "You know it when you see it."

"It will be clear to everybody when Iraq is trying to impede the process," says a US official close to the process. "But what that is, I can't tell you yet."

This vague definition, though, may not work for those on the UN Security Council – namely France and Russia – actively opposed to any military action. Iraqi cooperation may be in the eye of the beholder. "We had that during the '90s and you'll have that again – division on the Council over what cooperation means," says Terence Taylor, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq. "Some have an aversion to the use of force and a predisposition to take a more optimistic view of what the Iraqis are trying to deliver, without force being applied."

There is general agreement that a new pattern of behavior, not a single incident, would have to be documented to determine Iraq is in "further material breach" – a phrase the new UN resolution will likely contain, and which observers say legitimizes military action. However, Iraq, if it tries to obstruct or deceive, is not expected not do it blatantly. Rather, most observers expect Mr. Hussein to be on his "best behavior," at least initially, before resuming his game of "cat and mouse."

From passage of the new resolution – which is expected either today or early next week – Baghdad will have 30 days in which to declare a full and accurate accounting of whatever nuclear, chemica,l and biological weapons and weapons program exist in Iraq. As the resolution stands, UN inspectors must begin inspections within 45 days and report to the Council 60 days after that.

"If inspectors are unable to go about their jobs unhindered, not getting access to all the nooks and crannies, unacceptable delays, access to interview scientists and researchers – a whole pattern might lead to something," says Mr. Taylor, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies–US. "Moreover, if there's nothing new found at all, I would find that not credible. I would think Washington and others would, too, because it's not consistent with information the UN already has. Iraq would have to come up with credible information about where everything went."

History indicates that Iraq's tactics are typically rhetorical or technical – from lodging protests to hiding documents – but don't exclude the physical. According to a list compiled by the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the first reported incident came in June 1991, when Iraqi officers fired warning shots at inspectors to prevent the seizure of documents. In September of that year, inspectors were left waiting during a four-day standoff over access to a site; Iraq succumbed only when the Security Council threatened "enforcement actions."

During one stretch in September 1997, an Iraqi officer reportedly attacked an inspector aboard an UNSCOM helicopter as the inspector was photographing unauthorized movement of Iraqi vehicles at a site below. Then, four days later, "while seeking access to a site declared by Iraq to be 'sensitive,' UNSCOM inspectors witness[ed] and videotape[ed] Iraqi guards moving files, burning documents, and dumping ash-filled waste cans into a nearby river."

As for the inspectors themselves, all countries concerned will be hanging on their every word. Hans Blix, chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), has resisted the notion that his reports may be the one thing standing between Washington and war with Baghdad. But some wonder: Will inspectors be disinclined to complain loudly if they know Washington is looking for a casus belli?

Moreover, some suggest inspectors may be vulnerable to politics. Inspections from 1991 to 1998 were loaded with inspectors from Western countries, which have greater expertise in the field of ballistic missiles and nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry. Today, the 270 or so UNMOVIC inspectors hail from 48 different counties, including many from Russia, China, and Eastern Europe – nations with strong economic ties to Baghdad, and reasons to avert conflict.

"Dr. Blix has made it clear that our job is to carry out credible and effective inspections; our job is not to provoke, harass or humiliate," says UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan. "He does not believe that we are responsible for deciding on war or peace. Our job is to report factually and objectively events on the ground, as they occur. It's for the Security Council to decide what reaction, if any, it will decide to take. The chairman has to exercise his judgment about what to report: For example, is a delay deliberate, or has the guard genuinely lost the key to the gate?"

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