Inspecting Iraq: No trouble yet

UN inspectors find nothing new at an old chemical weapons plant and a nuclear facility.

United Nations weapons inspectors examined what was once Iraq's largest chemical- weapons facility and a nuclear complex Wednesday - further signaling Iraq's willingness to permit unfettered access. But after a week of inspections, including visits to 20 sites, both Baghdad and Washington are finding different reasons to question the seriousness of the effort.

Iraq Wednesday accused UN teams of mounting a "show" inspection of a presidential palace on Tuesday, noting that a brief UN visit without gas masks and detection gear was not credible. "Unnecessary" and "unjustified" is how Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin characterized the search of al-Sajoud Palace.

President Bush described Iraqi cooperation Monday as "not encouraging."

UN officials reply that it's too soon for either side to be drawing such conclusions. Only 17 inspectors are working in Iraq. UN facilities here are in disrepair, lab equipment is still being shipped in, and another 80 inspectors aren't expected to arrive until the end of December. Most inspection visits have been to old sites previously surveyed in the 1990s.

Wednesday, the creaking gates of the vast al-Muthanna plant - which once produced the bulk of Iraq's mustard gas. as well as sarin and VX nerve agents - swung wide open as the UN inspectors' convoy arrived. With the prospect of war or peace possibly hinging on the turn of a single lock, Iraq has so far shown an unprecedented willingness to give UN inspectors access to any location. That alone, say Western officials, gives Iraq a winning edge in the "public relations battle."

But they are skeptical that Iraq's policy of openness will continue, or that Baghdad will come clean in a full declaration of its weapons of mass destruction and dual-use capabilities that is due by Sunday. Iraqi officials suggest that it will be thousands of pages long - providing many new sites for inspectors to verify. Iraq declares that it no longer harbors any proscribed weapons

"The Iraqis would have been very obtuse to obstruct the inspections in the first week, though there have already been a couple wrinkles," says a senior Western diplomat. "The declaration is going to be difficult to get right, since they say they have nothing. Admitting they were lying will actually be compliance."

At the vast chemical facility in the desert Wednesday, inspectors checked off items that had been logged by their predecessors more than four years ago: rows of large rusted vats filled with concrete, or with holes carved out with a blowtorch, all with faded UN number tags. The site was bombed by US aircraft in the 1991 Gulf War. A recent Iraqi report said the UN teams in the late 1990s had destroyed 38,500 artillery shells and other chemical-filled weapons, almost 520,000 gallons of liquid material, 150 pieces of equipment used to make chemical weapons, and four production facilities.

But a rotting gas mask near the entrance gate still spoke of the original purpose of the facility, and inside one building were crushed aluminum aerial bombs - the same ones that can be seen to this day in the Kurdish city of Halabja, where Baghdad's gas killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

A crane was ordered in to remove shipping containers blocking some buildings, so inspectors could poke around. "Nothing was wrong," says Raad Ali Manhal, the Iraqi liaison to the inspectors at the site. "Everything was all right."

A second UN team visited the al-Tuwaitha nuclear complex south of Baghdad to check on new construction and other changes since the last inspection in 1998.

As UN inspections gather momentum, a broader question, say analysts, is what role the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) play in underpinning the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein.

The answer may get to the heart of how Iraq weighs the threat of an American military invasion against the risks - in terms of showing weakness at home and in the region, and exposing Mr. Hussein's own security apparatus - of giving up all WMD ambitions.

"It's part of the myth - these weapons are central to the image the regime portrays of itself," says the senior diplomat. "[Hussein] put the responsibility of hiding WMD with the people responsible for his security - a pillar of the regime - so any scrutiny of those organizations are fundamentally dangerous [for Hussein's rule]."

Since UN inspections began last Wednesday, after a four-year hiatus, teams have seen just a handful of the 1,000 or so suspect sites on their list.

There was one delay of less than 10 minutes at the presidential gates on Tuesday; and some dual-use equipment tagged by UN teams at another site in the late 1990s was missing, and remains unaccounted for. But Iraq on Monday admitted that it had illegally tried to import specialty aluminum tubing - for peaceful industrial purposes, it said - that the US believes was destined for a clandestine nuclear program.

The inspections to date are part of an expected pregame warmup as the Iraqis and UN teams take the measure of each other, says Olivia Bosch, a former weapons inspector and arms control expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

So far, the new inspections hardly resemble the sometimes-threatening confrontations that marked UN inspections in the 1990s, when Iraq sought to conceal much of its WMD program. If it wants to, say analysts, Iraq could pull together its declaration list - in just two days. "[Iraq's] past performance is not necessarily an indication of future action," says Ms. Bosch.

UN Security Council resolutions and the White House make clear that cat-and-mouse games won't be tolerated this time. It is up to the Iraqis to demonstrate their compliance by detailing materials that remain unaccounted for - or any new WMD progress in any field - and not up to the inspectors to turn over every stone in their hunt.

"I would expect the Iraqis to be very forthcoming. They already made some statements about illegally procuring the aluminum tubes - this is a welcome step," Bosch says. Iraqi officials said the tubes were for missiles, not nuclear weapons. "This time around there has to be a new way of thinking, on all sides."

One measure of that thinking is the fact that Iraq now allows Western journalists more freedom. They are normally strictly controlled and almost never allowed to visit such "closed military zones" as the sprawling 14-square mile Muthanna chemical facility.

During the five-hour inspection, herds of camels milled around the decrepit front gate of Muthanna, with its peeling paint and guards' blankets hung up on a barbed wire fence. A white UN was vehicle parked at the entrance to prevent any Iraqi workers from leaving.

"We are totally confident, otherwise you wouldn't be able to go [to the facilities]," a senior Iraqi official says. "Nothing is left in Iraq. We didn't use them when we had them in 1991, and we don't have the ability to rebuild. The CIA and the Mossad [Israel's spy agency], they know it."

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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