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The World | NEWS ANALYSIS

A Simple Yes to Monitors Is Baghdad's Top Defense

September 27, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — As the United States presses its case for swift military action against Saddam Hussein, those tracking the crisis believe that the most effective tactic in the Iraqi president's arsenal for counterattack may be a simple word: yes.

Political analysts believe that if Hussein holds to the offer to allow international weapons inspectors back into his country and lets them into at least a few sensitive areas early on, he could achieve two important tactical advantages:

* Provide new fodder for those searching for ways to avert military action against him.

* Delay a U.S.-led attack long enough to conceivably make it impossible to complete before the onset of the hot season next spring. Excessive heat and a shortage of water would make a large-scale military operation next to impossible, analysts say.

"If Saddam can stretch this out through March, he's probably bought himself another eight months," summed up a senior Bush administration official who requested anonymity.

Joseph Cirincione, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, noted that despite the Bush administration's heated rhetoric toward Iraq, "nothing is going to happen soon--neither inspections, nor war. Both take time."

Such realities provide a jarring disconnect with the sense of urgency conveyed by the administration.

The power of the word "yes" was on display last week when Iraq suddenly offered to allow the unconditional return of weapons inspectors after a four-year absence. The move undercut--at least temporarily--gathering support for U.S. efforts to mobilize the United Nations behind a tough new stance against Hussein.

Although subsequent statements from Baghdad indicated that the offer was less sweeping than initially believed, it broke America's diplomatic momentum just as the Bush administration was pushing for a strong U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin referred to Iraq's gesture on the inspectors as a genuine opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully.

In hopes of boxing Hussein in, the administration is expected to load any final U.N. resolution with other conditions--including a halt to the persecution of Iraq's civilian population and the release of information on the fate of all prisoners from the 1991 Persian Gulf War--that could provide a trigger for military action if not quickly fulfilled.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday worked to broaden the case against Hussein, saying that the U.S. now has "solid evidence" linking the Iraqi leader with the Al Qaeda terrorist network. However, analysts believe that it may prove far harder to muster international support for military action based on violations not related to the issue of whether Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.

The administration's attempt to broaden the case against Hussein follows U.S. efforts to press what it sees as the need to act soon.

In a speech last month, Vice President Dick Cheney declared, "Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon."

Only days later, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush described Hussein's regime as "a grave and gathering danger" and hard-liners within the administration talked of a U.N. resolution that could trigger a military option if Baghdad failed to comply with the world body's demands "within days."

But U.N. weapons inspectors say that, even with Baghdad's cooperation, taking an accurate measure of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities is likely to take months, not weeks or days.

"We'll not drag our feet, but this is a complicated job," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. inspectors' office here. "It can't be done overnight."

Buchanan cited one example: Under existing U.N. resolutions, Iraq is obligated every six months to provide a list of locations and activities of so-called dual-use facilities--laboratories, factories or buildings that can be used for both military and civilian activities. Buchanan said that with a four-year backlog, these reports are likely to run thousands of pages in length.

Routine tasks such as gathering inspectors from the U.N.'s worldwide roster of 200 trained experts and retooling computers, vehicles and other equipment left behind in Baghdad also are likely to delay the start of inspections and initial evaluations, Buchanan noted.

Although inspectors would probably want to test immediately any new powers that might come with a new resolution for complete and unfettered access to possible weapons production sites, it would take several weeks to launch extensive inspections, according to Buchanan. He said it would be hard to shorten drastically the two months allotted under the current U.N. timetable for establishing what new material and equipment Iraq may have.

"We'll try to squeeze this [timing] somewhat, but it's difficult," he said.

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