Bush Battles to Control Iraq Script

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UN disarmament inspectors leave a presidential palace site in Baghdad

President Bush says "the signs are not encouraging" that Saddam Hussein intends to comply with UN demands. But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sees things differently, saying on Tuesday that "there is a good indication that the Iraqis are cooperating," but adding that "this is only the beginning." As minor as this disagreement may sound, it masks a significant difference of perception. That's important, since whether or not there will be war in Iraq now depends — to the chagrin of the Bush Administration's more hawkish elements — in large part on the findings of the UN arms inspectors now in Baghdad.

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The Administration is continuing its military buildup, scheduling massive exercises from a new Gulf command center in Qatar and pressing allies for support. But when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz met with Turkey's foreign minister on Tuesday, he was told that country would allow the U.S. to use all-important bases to attack Iraq's northern flank only if a military intervention had been authorized by the UN Security Council. Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis went to great length to emphasize that Turkey believes a war would require a new UN resolution. And the Security Council is unlikely to even consider military action against Iraq unless Baghdad impedes access by inspectors to suspected weapons sites, or those inspectors turn up evidence that Iraq has lied about its weapons programs.

So far, as Annan has noted, Iraq has allowed the UN inspectors access to every site visited, including one of Saddam's palaces — an inspection that symbolized the break with the previous inspection regime for which the Iraqi leader's expansive digs were off limits. And as far as the inspectors have let on, they've found little amiss. Some missile parts and monitoring equipment had gone missing from one previously-inspected site, but the Iraqis have explained the absence. The daily TV images of inspectors poking around at will has made it tougher for Administration hawks to make the case that Iraqi is hiding weapons of mass destruction. The White House has lately been citing such Iraqi actions such as the snotty letters sent to the Security Council to protest the terms of the new inspection regime and the fact that Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners continue, as they have for the past five years, to fire at planes patrolling the "no-fly" zone maintained by the U.S. and Britain as signs of Saddam's continued defiance. Administration officials are also complaining that the inspection team is too small and its activities too limited, thus far. But those complaints are hardly likely to spur even America's allies to endorse a new war.

For most of the Security Council and the wider international community, the only trigger for military action is Iraqi non-compliance with the inspection regime, or discovery of undeclared weapons programs. Now that Iraq's initial response to the return of the inspectors appears to be one of cooperation and compliance, the focus shifts to the question of discovery. A crucial test begins this weekend when Iraq is required to hand over a complete inventory of all existing weapons of mass destruction, all programs for their development and all facilities where substances used for harmless industrial purposes could also be used to create chemical or biological weapons.

The Security Council will take the discovery of undeclared weapons programs as a serious threat. But given the scale of the information demanded by the inspectors, the council may well be flooded with tens of thousands of pages of documentation describing Iraq's entire industrial infrastructure. The White House has already warned that it could take four or five days to simply translate, sort through and process whatever lists the Iraqis provide. Still, the Administration is putting out the word that Iraq will lie. "[Saddam] says he won't have weapons of mass destruction," said President Bush Tuesday. "He's got them."

Comments from Hussam Mohammed Amin, the top Iraqi official dealing with the UN inspectors, suggest that Bush is correct in warning that the Iraqis plan to claim they have no weapons of mass destruction. However, while Administration officials insist that if Saddam claims to be clean he's lying, the UN Security Council is unlikely to be persuaded by the argument that an Iraqi declaration deemed false by Washington and London will, in itself constitute an infraction of Resolution 1441. If they had been prepared to accept at face value the U.S. and British claim that Saddam is actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction, they wouldn't have bothered to send inspectors back. The purpose of sending UNMOVIC to Baghdad was to prove — or disprove — Washington's allegations.

Washington hawks don't buy that reasoning. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday emphasized the Administration talking point of the week — that the onus is on Saddam to show he is meeting his disarmament obligations rather than on the inspectors to find proof that he isn't. Rumsfeld warned that inspectors might well never turn up any sign of the programs Washington insists Iraq continues to conceal. But if even such crucial allies as Turkey are insisting on UN endorsement of an attack, then plainly the consensus on the Security Council cannot be dismissed as easily as the Defense Secretary might hope. And unless the inspection process turns up incontrovertible evidence of continued Iraqi WMD activity, or Iraq blocks the inspectors, the U.S. has little chance of winning UN endorsement for an invasion.

That's why the "Gotcha!" moment won't come when the White House has translated Iraq's declaration and compared it to the dossiers compiled by U.S. intelligence; it can only come if the U.S. is able to point the UNMOVIC inspectors to sites, individuals or documents that will prove Saddam is lying. Washington has the advantage, of course, in that Saddam doesn't know what Bush knows about the Iraqis' doings. Nor, of course, do the rest of us, from UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix on down. The coming weeks will not only test Saddam's claim that he has no weapons of mass destruction; they will also test whatever evidence Washington offers to the contrary.