Inspections: Can They Work This Time?

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A UN inspector in 1998 checks a sample at an Iraqi chemical plant

It's hard enough to organize a pre-emptive war with midterm elections looming and the stock market swooning and close allies refusing to participate. So the first-strike hard-liners in the Bush Administration must have found it hard to swallow when Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on a video conference call with the vacationing President in Texas last month, argued for the need to go through the United Nations before marching on Baghdad. But Powell pitched it cleverly, says a senior State Department official, in a way that showed "how it would work without limiting the President's options." Vice President Dick Cheney reluctantly agreed, as did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then George W. Bush. After a long summer of internal commotion over Iraq, Powell scored his biggest win.

Or so it seemed until last week. So successful was Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the U.N. in rallying an international consensus against Iraq that it left Saddam Hussein with little choice but to do what he rarely does: concede something. In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iraq announced that after four years of blowing off inspections, it was now ready to submit to them "without conditions." That left the war camp in an awkward dilemma. Can you convince the world it needs to get rid of a bully if the bully suddenly appears to be playing nice? And it left those less than eager for an invasion with the responsibility to prove exactly what, if anything, Saddam has conceded.

Baghdad's highly general letter didn't take U.S. officials entirely by surprise: "Everybody expected that at some point the Iraqis would come up with a half answer," says a senior State Department official. But it mucked up the White House's carefully calibrated strategy to ram through a beefed-up new U.N. resolution demanding that Saddam accept unfettered inspections anytime, anywhere, and setting a quick trigger for military action in the event that Iraq failed to comply. Instead, Saddam's offer revived uncertainty. France and Russia, two pivotal Security Council members that had begun to shift toward the U.S. hard line, now hailed a triumph for diplomacy and questioned the need to place new demands on Baghdad. Says a French diplomat: "You cannot threaten someone before you have started."

U.S. and British officials have not abandoned their intention to force an ultimate showdown with Saddam, but Iraq's success in changing the subject last week illustrated how hard it may be for the hawks to get to that point. Bush's call for weapons inspections relieved allies abroad and mollified the Administration's skeptics at home by creating the promise of broad solidarity. But it also kick started a process that Saddam has spent 11 years exploiting to his advantage. Now that the Administration has committed itself, rhetorically at least, to disarming Saddam peacefully before it launches a war to remove him, there is the possibility that it will end up doing neither. "The inspections route is the wrong route," says Ken Pollack, a former National Security Council staff member in the Clinton Administration.

Even though the Bush Administration considers inspections a waste of time, it is stuck with going through the motions. Before inspections begin, the U.S. has to figure out how to impose a sufficiently rigorous program. In the wake of Saddam's sudden pliancy, French diplomats pushed a plan to send the U.N.'s inspection team into Iraq under Security Council Resolution 1284, a somewhat watered-down version of inspection rules passed in 1999 after Saddam sent the eight-year-old inspections program packing. Washington is leaning hard on the U.N. to draft aggressive new language laying out Saddam's specific violations, far-reaching requirements to fix them and the consequences if he fails. The Administration has lobbied vigorously to put all that in a single resolution that goes on to authorize use of military force if Saddam impedes the inspectors' work. But France and Russia insist there has to be a second, subsequent resolution approving force, and even British officials think the U.S. may have to live with that. Yet that would free Saddam from the threat of an automatic, U.N.-sanctioned invasion if he thwarts inspections.

The Iraqi dictator is no doubt already playing a familiar game of embroiling U.N. negotiators in endless dickering. Late last week he switched back to a more truculent tone in a second letter to the U.N. delivered by Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, repeating his long-standing accusation that the monitors serve as spies for Western governments. (American and U.N. officials have suggested that the U.S. may indeed have sent spies posing as inspectors into Iraq, but Washington has never publicly admitted it.) Last week Saddam seemed ready to play footsie with his promise to cooperate. On Saturday the Iraqis said they would not abide by any "new, bad resolutions."

The U.S. wants inspectors in and pestering Saddam as soon as they can get to Baghdad. Yet even if the U.S. can rev up the pace, the start of inspections is weeks away. "We will go there with a small advance team as soon as possible," says Hans Blix, executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which monitors chemical and biological weapons. Once the inspectors enter Iraq, they need to set up transportation, communications, laboratories and radios and hire interpreters and local staff. Under current rules, the inspectors then have 60 days to draw up a "work program" outlining the sites they intend to check. Last week Blix indicated that the U.N. is willing to conduct a few unannounced inspections, a move the White House had been pressing for as "an early test" of Iraq's willingness to cooperate.

U.S. and British officials fret that under the current system, Saddam could string inspectors along for some time, making a false show of compliance while diluting the world's will to take him on. Blix says UNMOVIC will need at least a year to complete a full accounting of Iraq's inventory. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the inspectors will present a "work plan" to the Security Council within 50 days of arriving. Any serious assessment is a year off, however. The U.S. and Britain want to stack the deck for exposing Saddam in noncompliance by giving inspectors explicit authority to conduct "anytime, anywhere" searches. British diplomats are pushing the Security Council to rip up the old rules that allowed Iraq to designate "presidential sites" off limits and required inspectors to give Iraq 24 hours' notice before carrying out certain inspections. Says a London official: "We need to make it clear that this is tougher than (previous investigations), more intrusive, more likely to get results."

But is it? Even if inspectors return to Iraq with expanded powers, can they document, uncover and dismantle Saddam's full arsenal more completely than their predecessors? (From 1991 to 1998, monitors found hundreds of tons of chemical agents, dismantled more than 800 Scud missiles and wiped out Saddam's budding nuclear program, but they didn't come close to uncovering everything.) The U.S. has even less confidence in inspections after a hiatus: Saddam has had the past four years to hone his concealment skills. In eight years of efforts to uncover Iraq's stockpiles, "we taught them what we could find, and they learned how to conceal, deceive and deny," says David Kay, former chief nuclear inspector and an outspoken critic of the effort. The Iraqi weapons program now "is a lot smaller but a lot harder for us to ever have detailed knowledge of."

Some items on the inspectors' checklist — like suspected nuclear workshops and long-range ballistic missiles that require large stationary facilities — are relatively easy to spot. The man charged with finding them, iaea chief inspector Jacques Baute, said last week his nuclear-inspections team is equipped to uncover any bombs: "If you have the right people and use the right techniques, your probability of catching the offender is high." Since 1998, the IAEA has been analyzing satellite photos for signs that Saddam is pursuing nukes. Last month those photos produced images of new buildings going up at a former Iraqi weapons plant that the iaea wants to explore. These experts will wield new high-tech tools — a gamma-spectroscopy monitor known as the Ranger, which is used to detect radiation, and a bright yellow device, known as Alex, that can pick out metals used for nuclear purposes.

But chemical and biological weapons and the labs used to produce them are devilish to pinpoint. "They can be smaller and dual use," says Gary Samore, a weapons expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Any food-processing facility could be used for processing biological agents." Defectors have told Western officials that Saddam loads bioweapons into sealed wells drilled 60 ft. deep across the rural landscape and stocks chemical components in residential basements and palace bunkers. Labs for cooking up new toxins and germs are mounted on specially converted commercial trucks that cruise Iraqi highways to foil pursuers. "His weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities are mobile," Rumsfeld said last week. "They can be hidden from inspectors no matter how intrusive." Hardest of all to get rid of are the notebooks and computer hard drives filled with biochem recipes and nuclear designs that Saddam's scientists have compiled over the years. Even if all of Saddam's germ factories and the weapons made in them were eradicated, he would still possess the knowledge needed to rebuild after he "disarmed."

So what can inspections actually accomplish? In the White House's view, they won't help disarm Iraq. Bush says only a regime change can eliminate the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which means inspections are just a politically necessary warm-up for the main event. But the countries that forced Bush to try inspections first could see things very differently. They could well be pleased if the process somehow takes the air out of the American case for war. That means the argument Colin Powell won on that day back in August — that going to the U.N. will build support for U.S. policy without limiting Bush's options — could turn out to be dead wrong.

Reported by Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson/Washington, J.F.O. McAllister/London, Andrew Purvis/Vienna and Stewart Stogel/U.N.