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Ex-Inspector's Stance on Iraq Sparks Storm

Weapons: Scott Ritter says U.N. teams rid 95% of Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Critics and colleagues question the depth of his knowledge.

September 16, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When former United Nations arms inspector Scott Ritter got home from Baghdad Tuesday night, he was greeted by a flood of e-mail messages.

Some applauded his courage in standing up to the Bush administration's war rhetoric by telling Iraq's National Assembly that the U.S. had no "hard facts" that Baghdad possesses weapons of mass destruction. Others, saying he'd been brainwashed by President Saddam Hussein, suggested that he turn in his U.S. passport and move to Iraq.

"People who call me a traitor are disrespecting American democracy," Ritter said in an interview, one of dozens he juggled in the days after his return. "It's mind-boggling."

Mind-boggling is a word often applied to Scott Ritter these days. As a weapons inspector, he pioneered new techniques to ferret out Hussein's most virulent weapons. When Ritter resigned in 1998, he was hailed by conservatives in Congress for standing up to what he saw as lack of spine in the Clinton administration and the U.N. Security Council.

"Iraq today is not disarmed and remains an ugly threat to its neighbors and to world peace," Ritter told a Senate committee in September 1998. "Americans who think that ... something should be done about it have to be deeply disappointed in our leadership."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), called him "a true American hero." Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware was less kind, faulting Ritter for reaching "above his pay grade" in presuming to tell White House officials how to conduct foreign policy. "That's why they get paid the big bucks," Biden said. "That's why they get the limos, and you don't."

These days, Ritter is sounding a different warning. Concerned about the White House's drumbeat for "regime change," he argues that 95% of Hussein's arsenal was disarmed by the U.N. inspection teams between 1991 and 1998. The only way to determine whether Iraq has rearmed in the last four years, he says, is to let inspectors back in.

"There is no hard evidence, no hard evidence whatsoever," Ritter told CNN on Friday. "I'm not saying Iraq doesn't pose a threat. I am saying that it has not been demonstrated to pose a threat worthy of war."

So this former Marine, a tough-guy Republican with a taste for intelligence work and a knack for media splash, has been embraced by the anti-war movement. He says he has little in common with his latest allies--"they're tree-huggers and I'm for chopping down the forests," he explains--except for an understanding that war without provocation is wrong.

His passion for inspections is born of adrenalin-pumping days in Iraq. There were the "dog ate my homework" excuses Iraqi officials used to deter detection: Books were missing; documents had been destroyed during the war; the key to the office was lost. There were confrontations in parking lots when inspectors refused to leave after being denied entry to a building. Shots were fired over their heads.

'Underdogs' in the Game

"It was a great game, and we were the underdogs," recalled another weapons inspector, who asked that his name not be used to avoid a personality clash with Ritter. "We were like hotel thieves, cooking up all kinds of creative methods to get in." Being on the inspection team, he said, "was the highlight of all of our lives."

If some see Ritter's obsession with inspections as nostalgic, others ridicule him for taking a 180-degree turn and for demonstrating--as former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North did in embroiling the Reagan White House in an arms-for-hostages swap with Iran--that Marines are sometimes better at "taking the hill" than understanding it.

"This is the classic Marine problem," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's building a bridge over the River Kwai, when it's not apparent that a bridge is what is needed."

Since 1998, Ritter has earned his living as a lecturer. He wrote "Endgame," which Simon & Schuster is reissuing in paperback. With $400,000 from an Iraqi American businessman, Shakir Alkhafaji, he produced a documentary about Iraq, "In Shifting Sands," which will also be the title of his next book. Ritter bristles at the comparison to North, who invoked his 5th Amendment rights before Congress granted him immunity. Ritter also insists that he has done no 180-degree turn, being a fan then and now of the power and efficacy of inspections. And he is quite angry about accusations that he has become Hussein's lobbyist.

"I despise what Saddam has done to his people, I wish ... he'd drop dead," he said.

The trip to Baghdad--funded in part, he says, by peace groups--was not meant as propaganda for Hussein but as a counter to the White House media blitz against Iraq. "I used the address to the Iraqi National Assembly to put my message before the American public," he said. "I knew Bush was meeting with [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. I knew the administration would have its voice on the Sunday talk shows. I decided to launch a preemptive strike."

A Born Military Man

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