Saddam's Moment of Truth

  • Share
  • Read Later
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Bush found some support, but not full approval, from NATO

President Bush spent the week in Europe trying to rouse a posse to go after Saddam Hussein, but the response of his NATO allies underscored the centrality of the new round of UN arms inspections underway in Baghdad. The Europeans simply agreed to restate the existing consensus — that Iraq must comply with UN disarmament requirements, or else. That, after all, is the position codified in UN Security Council resolution 1441, which was adopted unanimously two weeks ago. The U.S. has begun sounding out European allies on troop commitments in the event that military action becomes necessary — the responses will vary, but for most of the Europeans, military aid will be conditional on the inspectors either being blocked by Iraq in the course of their work, or else turning up clear evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Washington sought to keep up the pressure on Baghdad, last Monday by citing Iraq's firing on U.S. aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone as a violation of Resolution 1441. Almost in the same breath, U.S. officials made clear they would not claim this as grounds to reconvene the Security Council and demand military action — for the simple reason that most Council members don't share the U.S. interpretation, because the "no-fly zones" are not specifically mandated by any UN resolution. Of course, if one of Saddam's ack-ack gunners succeeds — improbably, after more than five years of trying — in shooting down a coalition plane, the Iraqi leader is in real trouble. The legal niceties of the status of the "no-fly" zone might evaporate quickly in the face of a downed fighter, which could easily be taken by Washington as sufficient provocation for war. But failing that, much now hinges on how Saddam responds to the UN inspectors, and on what information they turn up.

Swedish diplomat Hans Blix led the advance guard of his inspection team back to Baghdad this week, but their mission was a combination of housekeeping and diplomacy. While administrative staff set to work on cleaning and re-equipping the operational headquarters of the UN Monitoring and Verification Committee (UNMOVIC), Blix held a series of meetings with top Iraqi officials to set out what will be required of them. Sources close to the discussions described the atmosphere as positive and businesslike, with the Iraqis promising full cooperation.

Blix stressed the importance of a full and accurate accounting by the December 8 deadline of all Iraqi facilities potentially involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, in its letter accepting Resolution 1441, restated its claim that it has no such weapons programs. Blix pointedly urged them to reexamine their inventories to make sure that any offending items were declared, because any undeclared programs or stocks revealed in the course of subsequent inspections would put Iraq squarely in breach of 1441 — and almost certainly trigger a military response. The UNMOVIC chief's comments could be read as a subtle warning to the Iraqis that they'd be better off fessing up to any infractions, even if those contradict what was said by Baghdad a week ago, than being caught lying.

The Iraqis expressed confidence that they could provide a full account of any nuclear and biological stocks or programs by the Dec. 8 deadline, but did express some concern over whether the scale of the information demanded on possible "dual-use" chemical materials could be completed by that date given the size of Iraq's petrochemical industry. But they are, at least in their demeanor, signaling a willingness to work with the inspection regime.

Although the first team of actual inspectors arrives next Monday and is expected to start visiting previously inspected sites two days later, the Dec. 8 deadline remains a moment of truth, or more correctly, the start of a countdown to a moment of truth. Some overly gung-ho reports in the U.S. media suggest that Washington will immediately cry foul if Iraq's declaration doesn't match the Bush Administration's suspicions of its WMD programs. It's not quite that simple: The inspectors are being sent back precisely to investigate any discrepancy between what Saddam says he has and what Western intelligence agencies believe he has. And it's only once they find evidence of such discrepancy, or Saddam does something to impede them, that the Security Council will find Iraq in material breach of Resolution 1441.

The U.S. and Britain, of course, believe they have evidence of active Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological programs. If these are not declared by Baghdad on Dec. 8, the next step by Washington and London will likely be to provide Blix's team with their hottest intelligence to point them to the locations where they'll catch Iraq red-handed. And if that happens, an invasion will likely be inevitable. But until it does, the allies Washington seeks in Europe and the Arab world may be inclined to defer their own decisions about participating in a war.