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THE WORLD | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.N. Inspectors' Report Likely to Disappoint U.S.

January 25, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — The United Nations' chief nuclear weapons inspector will give a report Monday to the U.N. Security Council that offers the United States little encouragement in its campaign to convince the world that using force against Iraq appears to be the only option.

In a wide-ranging interview this week, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian who heads the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, quietly made clear that until there are concrete facts before the public about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the world should resist declaring war.

A lawyer known for his careful deliberation and a certain exacting logic, ElBaradei says his report will largely dovetail with that of Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief inspector for chemical and biological weapons as well as missile systems.

"Both of us are going to say we have no evidence of proscribed activities," ElBaradei said flatly. "We are both going to plead for more time."

But the reports will diverge in assessing how cooperative the Iraqis have been -- ElBaradei says his inspectors have received "reasonably good cooperation," while the chemical and biological inspectors feel that they have received considerably less than they need.

In many ways, this is a moment of truth for the IAEA. If ElBaradei's report and that of Blix are used to justify a war, ElBaradei says, it will be a deeply regrettable result that will abort the inspection mission. But if his request for more time is granted, it raises the stakes for his agency -- perhaps to an unrealistic level.

Both results are fraught with peril for the IAEA. If President Bush ignores ElBaradei's request, the agency's capacity to peacefully defuse nuclear danger will have been cast aside at the very moment when it is pursuing the most aggressive inspection regime it has undertaken.

On the other hand, if the inspectors win more time, it is unclear whether they can fulfill their mission to the satisfaction of U.N. member countries. The U.S. and Britain have already expressed deep doubts that the inspectors are any match for what the two countries believe is a concerted effort by Iraq to conceal its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

ElBaradei, 60, seems an unlikely person to be doing battle for such high stakes. He is described variously by former colleagues, associates and policy experts as "quiet," "modest," "academic" and "a diplomat," adept at finessing differences among U.N. countries by tweaking legal language.

But in other ways he is strikingly suitable for the stage on which he finds himself. A rigorous lawyer known for his canniness, he has a claim to credibility in both the East and the West with his roots in the Arab world but a prestigious American legal education and a career spent in the West.

Even with such credentials, however, it is far from clear that the United States will heed ElBaradei's plea for several months' more time -- he refuses to be pinned down to an exact schedule.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell both say that an attack would be justified regardless of what the inspectors say because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has not led them to his weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, if that is the only criterion, then the weapons inspectors' equivocal assessment of the cooperation they have received may be seen as enough by the U.S. and Britain to justify using force.

"The administration wants to and needs to frame this in terms of Saddam's not providing the documentation, the full accounting and the cooperation required," said James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor to President Clinton and now director of the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program.

"To the extent that the inspectors say that Saddam has not accounted for his mass-destruction program, the administration can say, 'Hey, this is not something we're making up -- it's something the inspectors themselves are saying.' "

ElBaradei says such a rationale is thin at best. Sitting in his 28th-floor office overlooking Vienna, he talked soberly about the gravity of the situation facing the world as it confronts Iraq as well as the challenges the IAEA faces on a host of other fronts, including North Korea and Iran.

An articulate man with a taste for culture -- his office is decorated with textiles from Turkey and small statues from Egypt, and on a recent two-day trip to Moscow he found time to go to the Bolshoi Ballet -- his view of the crisis with Iraq reflects above all his legal training and background.

A Student of Law

The son of a highly regarded human rights lawyer in Egypt and a lifelong student of international law -- he has a doctorate from New York University Law School and has spent much of his professional life practicing international law at the United Nations -- ElBaradei finds it most disturbing that the debate pays scant attention to legal doctrines that have become norms for taking military action.

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