The Trouble With Inspections

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SURPRISE: An Iraqi presidential guard peers through a gate at al-Sajoud, one of Saddam’s presidential palaces, before admitting U.N. inspectors

"Open the gate. We want to come in."

With those words last week at the entrance to one of Iraq's presidential sites, weapons inspectors in Baghdad made it clear they intended to go anywhere they wanted in the renewed hunt for weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein may possess. After a few minutes' hesitation by startled palace guards, the 23 U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were welcomed in—to enter rooms, poke in closets, even inspect a store of marmalade.

Iraq was making it just as clear that the regime intended to make a show of its cooperation with the onerous terms of Security Council Resolution 1441.

The inspection was largely symbolic for both sides: presidential palaces had been effectively off-limits during the eight years of previous searching, and Saddam's regular refusal to grant access to sites by December 1998 precipitated not only the end of inspections but also four days of intensive U.S. and British bombing.

Iraqi officials say they believe Washington suggested the choice of al-Sajoud palace that day to U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) chief Hans Blix for a different reason. Iraqi officials assert that the Americans directed inspectors to the compound because they thought Saddam was in the area and they wanted to see how accurately U.S. intelligence was tracking his movements. However the site was chosen, Baghdad believes Washington may have wound up with useful information. Since the Tuesday- morning destination was a secret, inspectors were surprised to be greeted within 10 minutes of their arrival by none other than Saddam's personal secretary, Abed Hamid Mohmood, who, according to Iraqi officials, sticks close to his boss. These officials say that only Saddam could have granted the order to open up al-Sajoud.

The mix of motives, both imputed and explicit, illustrates the conflicting notions of what the inspections are all about. Iraq hopes that the process finally exonerates the regime from charges that it retains forbidden weapons of mass destruction, thus possibly paving the way for an end to economic sanctions. At the same time, Baghdad suspects the U.S. of exploiting the situation to spy. The U.S. expects the inspections to prove that Saddam is still hoarding illicit weapons and deserves to be forcibly disarmed. For many members of the U.N., a clean—or cleanish—accounting is the only possible hope for heading off war.

The procedure for arriving at one of those conclusions began last week with visits to 22 suspected sites in Iraq. A preliminary crescendo will be reached once experts have had time to digest the more that 11,000 pages of Iraq's disclosure—the eighth one since the Gulf War ended—of what it has and is trying to obtain in the way of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, plus missiles to deliver them into enemy territory. In theory, if analysts reading the declaration catch Iraq in any lies, that's a "material breach" of the resolution and grounds for "severe consequences."

Officials in Washington and London as well as at U.N. headquarters say such a finding will not automatically start the guns firing. But what is or is not in Iraq's declaration, they warn, could mark the point of no return in the Bush Administration's deliberate march toward war.

The report Iraq handed over Saturday was its last chance to come clean about its illegal arsenal. U.N. analysts dubbed Iraq's previous weapons inventories "complete fairy tales." Now Point 3 of Resolution 1441 again requires the regime to list in minute detail what prohibited weapons it has ever produced, stored or documented as well as something equally dangerous but more elusive: its intellectual and industrial capacity to make new illicit weapons after the inspectors go home.

That means Iraq also has to report on thousands of so-called dual-use facilities such as paint factories, pesticide plants, hospitals and distilleries, which could conceivably be involved in making weapons, along with material-procurement networks and import lists. U.S. officials say a misleading or incomplete report will not trigger instant military action, since they want inspections to go on to document a convincing pattern of misbehavior before they act against Iraq.

By 1998, the U.N. had made considerable progress toward finding and destroying the prohibited weapons that Iraq admitted it possessed. But in its final report, the old inspection team emphasized how hard it had been to find a base line. Those inspectors left a long list of stuff they knew existed but never found or could not verify that Iraq had destroyed as claimed. Yet what really had them worried after eight years—because of Saddam's record of being exposed in a lie—was how much weaponry they still had no inkling might exist. Last week the man preparing Iraq's declaration, the chief of its inspections-monitoring directorate, General Hussam Mohammed Amin, repeated Saddam's constant claim: Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction. Whatever it once had was destroyed or uncovered in past inspections, he said. At the same time, he acknowledged in advance that the report would include some "new elements with regards to new sites and new activities," suggesting that Iraq might fess up to items it believes the U.S. already knows about.

But, says Richard Butler, head of the inspection team ousted in 1998, the real dirt will ultimately be mined by comparing the new documents with the million pages on file at the U.N. and teasing out inconsistencies in the new inventory. The length of the declaration is no doubt intentional, Butler tells Time. "Dumping a truckload of material is part of the process of obfuscation," he says. It is the U.N.'s responsibility to assess Iraq's report. Officials there said they would not even share the declaration with Security Council members until they had purged any sections that serve as manuals for making illicit weapons.

In any case, the highly skeptical Bush Administration will make its own judgments, looking at what is on the list—such as what the Iraqis did with tons of mustard-gas materials that have not been accounted for—and, just as important, what is not on the list. It will measure Iraq's veracity by comparing its list with the one the cia has in its pocket. Administration officials, from the President on down, continued to insist last week that they had "solid" evidence—which they had never made public—that Saddam did too have an extensive armory for mass murder. U.N. officials have repeatedly asked Bush to make that intelligence available to help the inspectors.

The U.S., which preferred to let Iraq come forward with its inventory first, says it will begin sharing its intelligence to help inspectors undermine Iraq's declaration. But the Administration wants to choose its own gotcha moment.

In their searches last week, the inspectors found nothing illegal. But that's what everyone expected in the early days of a process that will start to get serious once Iraq's declaration has been processed. The inspectors have 1,000-odd known sites to scour, and the 23 experts on the ground have so far managed to visit two dozen. To carry out more than one inspection at a time, they need additional manpower: 35 more inspectors are to start working this week, and 100 are supposed to be in Iraq by year's end. They are also awaiting eight helicopters to extend the area they can cover. Their main office in Baghdad still needs to be debugged, leaving inspectors to communicate sensitive information by note. Each day they play a game of chase, zigzagging their route to keep Iraqi officials from figuring out the chosen destination before they get there.

The targets last week ranged from the presidential palace to a military base for Iraq's Chemical Defense Battalion to a factory for animal vaccines to three distilleries, where they found workers making 75(cent) gin but no nuclear devices. When the inspectors determined that a fermenter the U.N. had tagged as suspicious years ago was missing, Iraqi officials quickly led them to another veterinary complex, where it was located.

At al-Muthanna, the chemical base, the U.N. team unearthed some dusty shells filled with mustard gas, but they had been previously tagged and sealed in past inspections. Only at the Karama missile-design plant in northern Baghdad did the inspectors discover a small violation: several pieces of suspect equipment were missing. Iraq made sure worldwide television crews recorded it all: how punctiliously the regime complied with the U.N. crew, how empty-handed the inspectors came away.

Yet visits alone rarely produce dramatic moments of discovery. In the past, arms were tracked down mostly by piecing together complex mosaics from satellite pictures, surveillance cameras, export-import data, painstaking air and soil tests, and intelligence from defectors. Although Resolution 1441 gives inspectors stronger powers than they have ever had, it's still a struggle to turn up evidence that Iraq wants to hide. Chemical bombs may be buried in wells or stored in residential basements. The Iraqis could be shuffling tiny quantities of biotoxins around as if playing three-card monte. Labs can be kept in movable, undetectable vans. Saddam doesn't even have to stockpile lethal weapons if he can just hold on to the know-how for brewing them.

The entire inspections exercise from 1991 to 1998 allowed Baghdad to perfect ways to thwart the hunters. "We taught them what we could find," says David Kay, a former nuclear inspector, "and they learned how to conceal a program that is going to be a lot smaller but a lot harder" to find now. One example, from the 1999 U.N. report: in 1991, a major in Iraq's Special Republican Guard, Izzadine al-Majid, was ordered to take critical components from Iraq's missile program and hide them at a villa. After nine months, the materials were moved by the Special Republican Guard to another location. The U.N. learned about this only in 1995 while interrogating Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who famously defected with critical information. He fingered Izzadine al-Majid, who confessed.

Tips and defectors have produced much of what Washington knows about Iraq's arsenal. So, say impatient U.S. officials, the effective way to ferret out arms is to get more insiders like Izzadine al-Majid to squeal. That is why National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice traveled to New York City last week to press unmovic's Blix to carry out Point 5, the section of the U.N. mandate authorizing unrestricted access to Iraq's scientists, who can be taken out of the country, with their families, for questioning. The Administration proposes offering asylum to such witnesses and their families if they disclose crucial information.

Washington hard-liners like Richard Perle, an adviser to the Defense Department, call Point 5 "the only innovation" available to the inspectors and warns, "If they don't use it, they will fail." A senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is overseeing the U.N. inspectors dedicated to nuclear weapons, says that team is working on the practical arrangements to conduct interviews outside Iraq. But the official counsels patience. "We have to identify key people, make sure they want to go, identify their families. It's no use just going to the physics department at the University of Baghdad."

U.N. officials are deeply uneasy about encouraging defections. Blix insists the U.N. cannot force Iraqis to take such dangerous steps.

Iraq's extended-family structures don't lend themselves to defection because of the number of people this would involve, and those left behind would be in peril. Nevertheless, Rice spent most of an hour pushing Blix hard to agree to pursue Point 5 rigorously. "We will get the information," says a senior U.S. official, "(and) cross the bridge" later on how to make the interviews safer.

Inspections were barely under way last week when Bush pronounced them "not encouraging." Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a strong reminder that the U.S. was prepared to respond militarily to noncompliance. Day by day, Washington disparaged the process. After Iraq declares its arsenal, the White House and the Pentagon said, the regime must lead inspectors to the possible weapons sites and let them question everyone working there. Bush said disarmament, not inspections, was the goal and the burden was on Saddam to prove Iraq was defanged.

One purpose of the heated rhetoric was to convince Saddam that he is on the brink of war so he will have every incentive to meet inspection terms.

At the same time, the U.S. hoped its tough tone would pre-empt any positive reaction to Iraq's appearance of cooperation, which might erode international readiness to take up arms against him. The White House is already worried the U.N. will accept a lower threshold of compliance than the U.S. The tough words also reflected the deep resistance lingering in some parts of the Administration to let inspections proceed at all.

The hard-liners never supported the U.N. mission and regard inspections as an impediment to war. The moderates argue that an inspections effort working its way methodically to the irrefutable conclusion that Saddam has not disarmed is the only way the U.S. can muster allies for war.

Meanwhile, Saddam's game is to showcase Iraq's cooperation. Compared with the harassment inspectors encountered in the 1990s, Iraq last week set a pattern of spontaneous assistance, unlocking doors, handing over documents. Saddam let photographers shoot images of fruitless inspections that gradually took on a somewhat silly air and made Bush's hasty criticism look unfair. Iraq's President scored p.r. points in the Arab world for his willingness to endure humiliating intrusions even into his palaces. Although the U.N. teams studiously refused to disclose any findings, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, in contrast to Bush, that "Iraq's cooperation seems to be good."

Iraq's smiling facade cracked a bit after the palace visit. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, known for his fiery belligerence, denounced the U.N. team as spies and accused the U.S. of sending it to provide "precise information for the coming aggression." But Saddam spoke extemporaneously on television the next day and urged "patience" in letting the inspectors do their work, "to keep our people out of harm's way." Ordinary Iraqis welcomed the inspections. "Let the inspectors do their work. They will find nothing, and then maybe the sanctions will be lifted," said Ali Ahmed, who was enjoying the 'Id holiday at an amusement park. Saddam may be gritting his teeth, but his strategy is to play for time and hope that inspections ultimately give him enough of a clean bill to break up any coalition ranged against him. U.S. officials believe he's unlikely to unravel the strong position the U.S. is building. "If he wants to win a p.r. battle here or there," says a State Department official, fine. "We're going to win the war."

So even as arms inspectors cruise pretty much where they want inside Iraq, the U.S. military is setting itself up all around the perimeter. Diplomats went to Turkey to negotiate for basing rights and got a half-yes. Chief of the U.S. Central Command, General Tommy Franks, flew to his forward command center in Qatar to play war games that could turn into combat overnight. An armada of a dozen ships steamed off to possible war stations, and Pentagon planners prepared to call up a first batch of reserves. One way or another, the U.S. insists, Saddam is going to be disarmed.