What Next in Iraq?

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In a televised speech, Saddam urges the Iraqi people to support the new U.N. inspectors

Don't wait up this weekend for the Bush administration to respond to Iraq's much anticipated weapons declaration. Washington won't even get to see the document delivered on Saturday, and comprising more than 11,000 pages, until next week. The Security Council decided on Friday to delay distribution of the document to Security Council members until UN inspectors have analyzed its contents and determined whether any portions need to remain classified, in order to avoid making information public that could help others manufacture weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council will be briefed on the declaration by UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix early next week.

But even if the Iraqi declaration, required in order to comply with the "last chance" UN Security Council Resolution 1441, had been delivered straight to the White House, the response might not be immediate — nor especially dramatic. While some media outlets in search of cliffhangers and Washington hawks looking to get the war started have suggested that an Iraqi declaration deemed false by Washington — such as proclaiming itself free of prohibited weapons — would in itself constitute a trigger for war, the reality is more complex. Efforts to build a coalition to attack Iraq have underscored the centrality of the UN disarmament process as the basis for such a war — allied support for an invasion, even from Britain, is heavily dependent on Iraq being shown to be in violation of disarmament requirements, and therefore presenting an intolerable threat to peace. But very few potential allies are willing to accept at face value U.S. claims about Saddam's programs. They want proof, which is why the inspectors were sent back. Only if Saddam refuses to cooperate with the inspectors, or if they turn up evidence of Iraqi deceit, will Washington find support at the UN for going to war.

That's why a declaration deemed false by the U.S. and Britain won't be taken as a "trigger" for war, although it will help make an incontrovertible case for invasion if inspectors turn up evidence of Iraq lying. Although the Bush administration insists that the onus is on Iraq to prove that it has disarmed, once Iraq has made its declaration the onus will fall onto the U.S. and Britain to prove Baghdad is lying by pointing arms inspectors to evidence that would confirm Washington's charges.

That's why U.S. officials worked last week to dampen expectations of a rush to military action. They emphasized instead that the Iraqi declaration is the start of a process that Washington believes will, eventually, make an incontrovertible case for war. And debates continue among President Bush's security advisers, along familiar lines, over just how to long to wait for the UN process to make that case.

Saddam's game plan, naturally, is first and foremost to avoid a war that his regime can't survive. The Iraqi leader knows that while Washington's policy of "regime-change" in Iraq has little international support, its demand that Baghdad comply unconditionally with UN disarmament requirements has unanimous backing. So, by cooperating with the inspection process — galling as that may be — Saddam hopes to prevent Washington assembling a coalition against him. His game plan, then, appears to be based on doing everything to avoid provoking military action. In a rambling address to the party faithful this week, Saddam insisted that cooperation with the inspectors was vital to protect ordinary Iraqis from war. But he also signaled that this may only be a temporary tactical move: "Your patience, brothers and comrades, and that of the Iraqi people, is noteworthy; but your anger and revolt are also great when the situation calls for it," Saddam said. "However, for every situation there is an answer, for every phase there is a certain behavior, and for every action there is a reaction." In other words, the time for challenging the inspectors might come later.

Saddam may be hoping to string out the inspection process into the middle of next year, knowing that Iraq's 132-degree summers bedevil the prospects for ground warfare. It's a gamble, of course, because it involves a regime whose power is built primarily on fear graphically demonstrating its ultimate weakness by being forced to open the gates of Saddam's palaces whenever a bunch of scientists in baseball caps demand to poke around. And, of course, there's always the danger that the inspectors will uncover evidence of weapons programs — if that happens, expect the Iraqis to dissemble, proclaiming them leftovers or the work of rogue officers and inviting UNMOVIC to destroy them.

The Iraqis have hinted they'll claim to be clean, although some U.S. officials suspect they may well reveal substantial new information (although still falling well short of the required full disclosure). The U.S. is keeping Baghdad guessing, warning that it has evidence of continued prohibited weapons programs in Iraq, which will be provided to the inspectors in due course. The Iraqis are at a disadvantage, because they have little idea of what the U.S. currently knows. But some analysts and U.S. officials have hinted that it may not necessarily include a forensically verifiable smoking gun.

Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld appeared, this week, to suggest that most of the administration's critical intelligence comes from tips provided by scientists who have fled Iraq. "You can't expect people to go into a country that is just enormous, with all that real estate and all that underground facilities and all of these people monitoring everything, everything anyone is doing, and expect them to engage in a discovery process and turn up something somebody is determined for them not to turn up," Rumsfeld said. "If you go back and look at the history of inspections in Iraq, the reality is that things have been found not by discovery, but through defectors."

Not surprising, then, that the U.S. is putting pressure on UNMOVIC to make aggressive use of its power to take Iraqi scientists and their families out of their country to be interviewed beyond the reach of Saddam's retribution. Some Washington hawks have even suggested that the scientists be forcibly removed, although Blix dismissed suggestions that UNMOVIC would "abduct" people. Still, Washington's efforts to toughen up the inspection regime may focus on this particular dimension, which may also be the most difficult one for Saddam to digest. But the U.S. may be frustrated by the limits on its ability to direct UNMOVIC's mission.

But even as the media's clock is perennially poised at a minute before midnight, and a U.S. military buildup around Iraq continues to gather steam, for now the pace and terms of the confrontation are being set by the inspection and disarmament process. And right now, the UN is not rushing to judgment.