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Will Blix See a Fig Leaf but Ignore Smoking Gun?

It's uncertain whether U.N. inspection chief is a match for the wily Hussein.

November 19, 2002|Amir Taheri | Amir Taheri is the author of "The Cauldron: The Middle East Behind the Headlines" (Hutchinson, 1995). E-mail: taheri@benadorassociates.com

Hans Blix, the 74-year-old Swedish diplomat who heads the United Nations' team of weapons inspectors, is the central act in a three-ring circus that will decide whether there will be another war in Iraq soon. But it's beginning to look like Blix believes that his mission is not to discover Saddam Hussein's hidden arsenal but to produce a diplomatic fig leaf that could render war impossible.

The first ring in Cirque du Blix consists of the power struggle within the Bush administration. On the one hand, there are those committed to nothing less than regime change. On the other are advocates of a new version of "containment" under which Hussein will be kept in "his cage" until fate decrees something better for the Iraqi people.

The second ring plays out in the United Nations Security Council in New York, where French, Russian and Chinese veto holders are fighting to keep the Iraqi president in power as long as possible.

Blix's show in Baghdad will determine the outcome of the struggles in Washington and New York.

The Swedish diplomat has tried to minimize his role, insisting that any decision on war remains with the Security Council. Although technically true, this does not tell the whole story.

A Blix report that says Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction would make it diplomatically difficult for the Americans to take military action against Hussein. On the other hand, no amount of French and Russian chicanery could save Hussein if Blix reported that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was hiding them.

There already are indications that we may witness the shaping of the mother of all diplomatic fudges.

Let's start with the Security Council's decision to accept the Iraqi response to Resolution 1441 -- the United Nations' measure that provides for "tough and aggressive" weapons inspections in Iraq -- without closer scrutiny.

Iraq's response Wednesday does not contain an explicit and unconditional acceptance, as had been demanded by the Security Council, but simply says that Iraq shall "deal with Resolution 1441." The Arabic text is even more ambiguous and could be interpreted to say that the Iraqis shall "confront" the resolution.

The phrase "accepting unconditionally" came orally from Iraq's envoy to the United Nations, Mohammed Douri, whose weight within the Iraqi system is no more than that of a messenger boy.

President Bush had dismissed the Iraqi parliament's rejection of 1441 as unimportant, saying he would wait for Hussein to take a position. Yet Hussein has not taken a position; his propaganda is telling the Iraqi people that he has just won another great diplomatic victory by trapping "the American and Zionist enemy" into a diplomatic process beyond their control.

Of even greater concern are some of Blix's more recent pronouncements. In an avalanche of interviews and confidences, Blix has said three things that are significant:

* He does not start his mission from the premise that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, but rather with "an open mind."

As any reader of detective stories would know, this is a most curious police method. If you do not have a hypothesis upon which to work, you are unlikely to find anything.

* His team will operate "in accordance with the established procedures," meaning the 1998 accords signed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz.

The accords created what are known in diplomatic circles as "black tie" or "white gloves" inspections. The reference to "established procedures" weakens 1441, which was presented as a document superseding all previous resolutions and memorandums.

* Any evidence that the United States or another United Nations member presents that Hussein is dissembling cannot even be considered unless it is verified by Blix's team. Blix already has said he will not interview Iraqi weapons scientists abroad.

"I think it is wiser," he said, "to interview the Iraqis inside Iraq and in the presence of a representative of the Iraqi government."

Even more interesting is Blix's attempt at fudging the concept of "material breach." He said it was not up to him but to the Security Council to decide what was a material breach of the resolution. In other words, the whole thing becomes a matter of opinion, not of fact.

Blix said his team would focus on 700 sites throughout Iraq. These are sites that were inspected between 1992 and 1998. Could he not imagine that the Iraqis might have developed other sites? Wouldn't it be more prudent to assume that the whole of Iraq could be a weapons site?

In 1995, Hussein Kamel Majid, Hussein's son-in-law, defected and told the world of sites that the U.N. inspectors did not know existed.

Blix's intent can be understood from his assertion that if only one tire of his automobile is punctured, he will presume that to be an accident, but if all four tires are flat, he will suspect a deliberate act of ill will on the part of the Iraqis.

What he has not considered is the way Hussein works. Hussein will give him one flat tire at a time; enough to keep him busy changing tires but not enough to induce him to tell the Security Council that he was deliberately sidetracked.

Will Hussein outfox the gullible "crusaders" once again? He thinks that he can. It's up to Blix to prove him wrong.

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