How lack of a 'smoking gun' complicates US move on Iraq

With inspectors telling UN yesterday that they haven't yet found evidence of weapons of mass destruction, burden tilts more to US to prove Iraqi balkiness.

With weapons inspectors telling the UN Security Council they have yet to find any "smoking guns" in Iraq, a growing burden is passing to the United States to prove what it says it knows: that Iraq possesses and is developing weapons of mass destruction.

White United Nations helicopters now swoop through Iraqi skies, ferrying weapons inspectors to surprise visits. But as no-nonsense and even menacing as those helicopters must sound, the inspections process has entered a tricky phase where its results could put off a war - even though the goal of disarming Saddam Hussein's regime was not accomplished.

"We have now been [in Iraq] for some two months and been covering the country in ever wider sweeps, and we haven't found any smoking guns," chief inspector Hans Blix told reporters at the United Nations before briefing the Security Council yesterday. But Mr. Blix also noted that inspectors expected better cooperation from Iraq in allowing scientists to be interviewed. And he said Iraq had admitted in its 12,000-page weapons declaration to importing missile engines and raw material for the production of solid missile fuel.

Blix and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, briefed the Security Council yesterday on Iraq's weapons declaration, which it submitted a month ago. Blix had already deemed the declaration disappointing and incomplete after an initial read - a pronouncement that helped shift the burden of putting off a war to Mr. Hussein's shoulders.

But after weeks of inspections that so far seem to have turned up little in the way of evidence of existing weapons programs, some of the burden appears to have shifted back to the US. "The burden remains on Iraq to answer the many questions about its weapons programs in the 1990s, to address a number of anomalies" left open by the Dec. 7 declaration, says Jonathan Tucker, a former UN biological-weapons inspector in Iraq and now a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "But the US also has to show some tangible proof that Iraq possesses a militarily significant [weapons] capability that justifies war."

Mr. Tucker says the US is going to have to turn over "timely intelligence" to help the inspectors do a more complete job. "The inspectors keep complaining they aren't getting much [in the way of guiding intelligence], and I understand the US intelligence community is probably fighting tooth and nail any divulging that could compromise sources, but I would hope a higher power would override those concerns."

US officials insist such information-sharing is taking place. "We said 10 days ago we were prepared to share more information [with the inspectors]," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier this week, "and we have doing so ever since we said it."

But without more proof, Mr. Tucker says key international partners - and even many Americans - are likely to balk at a war. "I doubt the international community is prepared to simply take our word that Iraq has what we say it does," he says.

UN weapons inspectors say Iraqi officials are cooperating with their work, and have so far reported finding no overwhelming evidence that would signal the existence of a nuclear or biological weapons program. Thus the next three weeks - leading up to Blix's official report to the UN Security Council Jan. 27 - will be crucial: If the inspectors don't turn up compelling evidence during this time, there might not be a trigger for war that meets the test of international opinion.

"A lot can happen in three weeks. But right now if things continue as they've been going, you could have Blix basically telling the Security Council, 'We've found nothing, and the Iraqis have been cooperative. There were problems with their weapons declaration, but those are gaps we can uncover and clarify with more time,' " says Stephen Walt, an international-relations specialist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "But if you get a message like that in the Security Council, it's difficult to respond that the answer is to attack."

So far, however, the international community is demonstrating a strong unity of purpose on Iraq, with little daylight showing between the US position and that of other key international players. But that could change, experts say, if an ambiguous report from the inspectors widens the field of possible conclusions.

"This is trickier than simply what you find or don't, and the interpretations will reflect that, the less categoric the findings are," says Mr. Walt. "If they don't find anything, people opposed to a war will say there's no smoking gun. But if they find something," he adds, "the same people can be expected to say, 'See, it's working. The Iraqis are cooperating.' "

French President Jacques Chirac warned Iraqi leader Hussein earlier this week that his country has "one last chance ... to disarm in peace" by cooperating fully with the UN inspectors. And at the same time as the US and Britain are accelerating their military deployment in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Chirac told French troops in a traditional new year's greeting to be prepared for warfare with Iraq.

Chirac's words were designed above all "to pressure Saddam Hussein and discourage him from thinking he could find and exploit divisions in the Security Council," says one French official in Washington. But the official noted that Chirac also emphasized the French view that any decision to resort to warfare must come through the Security Council and not be made "unilaterally."

International unity is turning out to be a key factor in persuading some key countries to go along with an eventual war. Turkey, for example, which the US has been pressing to open its bases to US forces in the event of war, is still balking because of stiff resistance in public opinion. But Turkey is likely to go along, experts say, if a decision to wage war is seen as coming from the Security Council and not the US alone.

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