Iraqi game plan: Divide and delay

Hussein may commit an obvious violation, but he'll also likely try to delay inspections, scheduled to start Monday.

Saddam Hussein's history suggests that he will now try to avoid war by exploiting remaining differences of opinion between the United States and its big-power allies.

UN weapons inspectors are set to return to Baghdad on Monday. President Bush has said he will have zero tolerance for any Iraqi actions that block their work, such as suspicious flat tires or "spontaneous" demonstrations that tie up inspectors in traffic.

But France, Russia, and other Security Council members may well have more relaxed standards. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicated as much Wednesday, saying that some nations remain worried that the US is looking for a "flimsy" excuse to attack.

It's possible, even likely, that Mr. Hussein will commit some howlingly obvious violation that will trigger an invasion. But it's also possible that he will cheat and retreat, tell partial truths and partial lies, and attempt to isolate the US in the court of world opinion. His goal: to reignite bitter debate in the modernist Security Council chambers.

"There are possibilities [for Hussein] to delay by simply playing it out as much as he can," says a former US diplomat.

Iraq's grudging acceptance of the return of weapons inspectors was foreordained, according to US officials and outside experts. Simply allowing them to come back to Baghdad and reopen their offices costs Hussein little, in real terms - and it buys time for him to continue to plan how to remain in power.

More troublesome, from the Iraqi point of view, is the next deadline in the process unanimously authorized by the Security Council last week. By Dec. 8, Hussein is supposed to provide to the UN a detailed list of all its weapons of mass destruction sites, programs, capabilities, developments, and personnel.

Since Iraqi leaders have insisted that they have no WMD material at all, admitting to such would represent quite a change in direction. Furthermore, Hussein has no way of knowing what kind of intelligence the US has developed linking his regime to chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Partial disclosure might trigger a "gotcha" US response.

In fact, many current and former administration officials believe that Dec. 8 will be the key date in determining the future course of events. Many consider it likely Iraq will be in clear violation of UN demands at that point, even to France and Russia.

But what if Hussein admits just enough to get by? That's a troublesome scenario for those conservatives who have long urged a preventive strike on the Iraqi regime.

That would restart the UN inspections regime - and Hussein has long experience at frustrating inspectors' goals. The UN resolution of last week contains no reference to Mr. Bush's professed "zero tolerance" of Iraqi interference. Indeed, it provides little guidance on what kind of shenanigan, or how many, might trigger war.

"The resolution is a bit ambiguous," says Judith Yaphe, a National Defense University expert on Iraq. Thus it might be possible for Hussein to orchestrate a series of small actions which, individually, might not seem like much, but which added together would constitute a serious infraction.

In the past, inspectors have been told that people they wanted to talk to were suddenly unavailable, perhaps for some time, as they had just been in a serious car accident. Often documents provided to inspectors were incomplete, or tampered with. Rooms were bugged. Inspection teams were threatened.

David Franz, a former chief inspector of UNSCOM, says that when the inspectors left their hotel and went to their bus, they would announce an intended destination. Sometimes they would be driven there immediately. Other times they would have to wait for a driver, or a fan belt, or they would circle Baghdad for a while to kill time.

"There was one incident at a Baghdad University vet school where they kept us in the parking lot for four hours, saying, 'Our universities are sacred, we can't have weapons inspectors on our campuses,' " says Dr. Franz. That incident was resolved by a satellite phone call to a top UN official. In four hours, the Iraqis could have hidden lots of evidence - meaning it is just the sort of delay that Bush now says he will not tolerate.

Despite last week's unanimous vote, some Security Council members remain concerned the Bush administration is just looking for an excuse to go to war, adding regime change to the UN's professed goal of disarmament.

Mr. Annan, perhaps speaking for the more reluctant Security Council members, said Wednesday that any war-triggering event must show obvious deliberate calculation by Iraq.

Reasons for war "must be seen as reasonable and credible, not contrived or stretched," said Annan. Of course, contrived is in the eye of the beholder. Conservatives worry that by going through the UN the Bush administration has now made eliminating the dangers posed by Hussein more difficult, not less.

"Two months from now, [Bush] may have to argue for war on the grounds that two inspectors were turned away from a suspicious chemical factory. That is not progress," wrote William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, in a recent editorial in the Weekly Standard.

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