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RESPONSE TO TERROR | NEWS ANALYSIS

Demand for Iraq Inspections Could Be Ploy for Attack

November 29, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — In demanding the resumption of U.N. inspections inside Iraq, President Bush is advancing a solution that many experts consider incapable of preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, national security analysts are so pessimistic that renewed inspections could effectively deter Iraq that many believe Bush is hoping Hussein will continue to reject the offer--and thus provide a justification for a military strike against his regime.

"We may be laying the groundwork here for actions against Iraq," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Bush's call earlier this week for renewed inspections has drawn praise from some Middle East experts, who maintain that the United States must offer the Iraqi president a chance to cooperate now if it is to build a coalition for tougher steps against him later.

Others worry that Hussein--who so far has unequivocally rejected Bush's demand--may outfox the United States by eventually accepting it. That could begin another round of inspections that probably would prove inconclusive while preempting any effort to assemble support for military action to overthrow him.

"The folks in the administration who are supportive of going after Saddam are taking somewhat of a risk in that the focus becomes inspections, which implicitly leaves Saddam as the legitimate government," said Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a hawkish think tank.

Yet the demand for inspections offers the administration a way to further isolate Hussein while delaying decisions on possible military action until the campaign in Afghanistan is closer to completion. "What it gets us is showing that we are prepared to work with the international community to try to deal with the threat of Saddam," said James B. Steinberg, the deputy national security advisor under President Clinton.

The difficulty the Bush administration would face in achieving international backing for military action against Iraq was underscored Wednesday when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, during an appearance in Washington, said his government has been given an understanding that the United States does not intend to launch such a campaign. Maher did not specify the source of his information.

The history of the international efforts to uncover and destroy Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in the decade since the Persian Gulf War is a story of virtually unremitting frustration.

The United Nations imposed the inspections in the resolutions ending the war in 1991. But from the start, investigators faced relentless Iraqi resistance that undermined their efforts.

Although the inspections did produce some important discoveries over the years, the larger lesson of the experience was that "when a determined criminal flouts international law under cover of the principle of state sovereignty, the world system, as currently constituted, appears unable or unwilling to stop him," said Richard Butler, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector, in his memoir "The Greatest Threat."

Iraq used an assortment of tactics to block the investigators. It ignored U.N. mandates to provide an accurate roster of weapons facilities. It began a systematic program of revealing portions of its weapons programs and concealing the rest--a ruse that was unearthed when one of two Hussein sons-in-law who defected in 1995 revealed details about the policy.

Frequently, Iraqi officials simply stalled inspectors at the gates of a facility while other Iraqis raced from the site with documents, literally in view of the investigators. Later, Iraq unilaterally barred inspectors from "presidential sites" such as palaces that the investigators believed were hosting weapons research.

Khidhir Hamza, who directed Iraq's nuclear weapons program before defecting in 1994, said at a forum last year that Hussein's regime had grown expert at hiding its biological weapons program from inspectors. "Much of the work was being moved specially during the inspections. . . . [It] would move around in hospitals, factories, military areas, bunkers, anywhere," he said. "They've learned to do it with smaller units working in more or less mobile situations."

Finally, in December 1998, the obstruction reached the point that Butler reported to the U.N. that the commission he headed was no longer able to verify the status of Iraq's weapons programs. The United States and Britain launched several days of airstrikes against Iraqi facilities believed to be producing weapons of mass destruction and other military targets.

No international inspectors have been allowed back into Iraq since, though the U.N. demanded their return in a December 1999 resolution. Earlier this month, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the only reason Hussein could be blocking the return of inspections was "so that he can build weapons of mass destruction."

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