Why the U.S. is Forced to Wait on Iraq

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UN disarmament inspectors leave a presidential palace site in Baghdad

So much for the countdown. Last week's TV news frenzy of ticking clocks, ominous slo-mo images of armies on the move and dark warnings by grave pundits as the due-date for Iraq's weapons declaration drew near has given way to an increasingly confusing spectacle. First there were those shiny gold CD-ROMs and reams and reams of documentation in Baghdad last Saturday breathlessly followed from airport to airport by 24-hour news TV crews before arriving in New York — where they were promptly snatched in a late-night swoop on UN headquarters by U.S. officials empowered by a last-minute round of diplomatic arm-twisting. Washington had managed to persuade the Permanent Five members of the Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China and the U.S.) to agree that they should all have privileged access to Iraq's declaration before the remaining ten members, and was simply transferring the documents to the White House for secure and efficient photocopying, officials said. "You can't just send this thing out to Kinko's," one explained.

But even though the Bush Administration now has in its hands a document it had preemptively denounced as a pack of lies, it is suddenly warning against hasty conclusions. "The thing to do is to not prejudge it, be patient and expect that it will take days and weeks probably to go over, and come to some judgments about it, said arch-hawk Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. It's not as if the document had blindsided Washington — the table of contents, already leaked to the media by U.S. officials on Monday despite the priority supposedly given to maintaining the declaration's security, makes clear that the only weapons programs Iraq is acknowledging are those terminated under the previous inspection regime, and that the Iraqis will claim any additional components as "dual-use" items being retained for innocuous civilian purposes.

The Bush Administration certainly believes Iraq is lying, but the reason for toning down its comments may have less to do with the contents of the document than with Washington's overall objective in going through the United Nations in the first place — winning international support for a war to oust Saddam Hussein. The U.S. insists it retains the right to strike unilaterally, and is proceeding at full steam to assemble the necessary military force in the region to mount an invasion. But it wants international backing both to ensure the widest range of basing options and, even more importantly, to secure regional support for the politically risky business of occupying a post-Saddam Iraq.

If the U.S. were to walk away at this stage from a UN process whose starting point is inspections to establish the facts regarding prohibited weapons in Iraq, the net effect would be to strengthen opposition to a war. UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which among other things demanded the Iraqi declaration delivered last weekend, makes clear that military action against Baghdad is contemplated by the Council only if Saddam either refuses to allow unfettered inspections or if those inspections turn up evidence of Iraq lying in its declaration.

The hasty document grab, claiming the right to exclusive access — and, apparently, also, the right to leak chosen bits — won't have helped U.S. efforts to maintain consensus at the Security Council. UN officials and other Security Council member states expressed disquiet Tuesday at the U.S. action, and vowed to complete their own security review in order to get the document to the full Council by next Monday.

A more serious problem for Washington, however, is that the delivery of the document, and the ongoing inspections in Baghdad mean that Iraq is currently in compliance with the Security Council's demands — at least as far as a majority of Council members are concerned. Some U.S. officials had suggested earlier that a declaration deemed substantially false by the U.S. and Britain could itself provide the basis for declaring Iraq in material breach of Resolution 1441, and calling for military action. But without any support on that position, Administration officials are now saying that a false declaration would be treated as a "piece of the puzzle" in making the case against Iraq, rather than as the basis in itself for declaring it in breach of Resolution 1441. At the same time, they maintain that any failure in Iraq's declaration to account for material listed as unaccounted for by the previous inspection team will be the critical indicator of Iraq's credibility.

Still, the emerging reality for the Bush Administration is that sealing the case against Iraq at the UN Security Council will require hard evidence. And UN inspectors have said repeatedly that they've yet to receive any intelligence from the U.S. or Britain that could point them to locations, documents or individuals that might prove U.S. accusations. The Bush Administration may insist that the onus is on Iraq to prove that it has disarmed, but in the eyes of other Security Council members there's clearly pressure right now on the U.S. and Britain to come forward with evidence that would allow the inspectors to verify their accusations against Iraq. But British and U.S. officials have also been warning reporters in recent weeks not to expect a smoking gun, or an intelligence coup that will provide incontrovertible, tangible evidence of Iraqi weapons development. Instead, they say, intelligence assembled over the years from defectors, combined with satellite photographs and procurement attempts, create a body of circumstantial evidence that, in light of Iraq's record, can only produce one reasonable conclusion. Making that case to a skeptical Security Council, however, may be a tough sell if it's unsupported either by the findings of the inspectors or by any efforts by Saddam to block them.

For now, Washington has little option but to wait for the inspectors to parse the Iraqi document and expand their inspections while pressing for more aggressive forms of investigation such as questioning Iraqi scientists outside the country and pointing the inspectors to suspect sites. The Administration can afford the wait because it has not yet completed the military buildup to the desired invasion-strength force. But the optimal date for an invasion is believed by military analysts to fall within the first quarter of 2003, and it's far from clear that the UN inspection team will have established a definitive finding on Iraqi weapons programs by its February reporting deadline. Unless Saddam obliges by ending his cooperation with the UN before then, the Bush Administration may face some tough choices before winter's end.