Iraq D-Day Remains Elusive

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HERWIG PRAMMER/REUTERS

Mohamed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency

Antiwar activists like to accuse the Bush Administration of waging a "war without end," but in the case of Iraq the more appropriate phrase might be "war without a beginning." Thursday's report to the UN Security Council by the officials leading arms inspection efforts in Iraq gave the strongest indication yet that the inspection process won't yield a definitive judgment on whether the country is conducting prohibited weapons programs by the January 27 deadline. The most dovish voices in the Bush war party — Secretary of State Colin Powell and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair — are warning that January 27 should not, in fact, be regarded as a definitive deadline at all. Bush Administration hawks may have other ideas as the U.S. moves rapidly to assemble an invasion armada that would be ready to do its job by mid-February.

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UNMOVIC chief Dr. Hans Blix and his counterpart for nuclear inspections, Dr. Mohammed al-Baradei gave the Security Council a mixed report: On the one hand, Iraq's declaration was unacceptable because it had failed to account for known chemical weapons stocks; on the other, Iraq has not impeded the inspection process and the inspectors have turned up no clear evidence of continued prohibited weapons programs. Al-Baradei even put the kibosh on at least one specific charge made by Washington when he reported that aluminum tubes alleged by U.S. officials to have been imported by Iraq for use in uranium-enrichment centrifuges were, in fact, unsuitable for this purpose and had been used, as Iraq claimed, for missile-engine development.

While Baghdad had not impeded the inspectors' activities, Blix and Al-Baradei demanded more "pro-active" cooperation from Iraq in establishing Iraqi compliance with UN disarmament demands. Iraq so far has done the minimum necessary to avoid being declared in violation of Resolution 1441 by the Security Council — but no more. But the conclusion from Blix and El Baradei was that they needed more time to thoroughly investigate the charges against Iraq. Possibly a lot more time.

Secretary Powell said this week that the Bush Administration has recently provided intelligence to help focus the inspectors' work on targets where a smoking gun, or at least some traces of smoke, might be revealed. And the inspectors plan to soon begin taking Iraqi scientists abroad for questioning — a key demand of the Bush Administration to ensure that the inspection process has the best chance of establishing the facts on Saddam's weapons programs. Still, conducting such interviews may be far from easy, since they rely on the consent of the individual Iraqi scientist, which may not be forthcoming. In short, nobody expects the inspectors have reached anything close to a conclusion by the January 27 deadline mandated in UN Security Council Resolution 1441. That could exacerbate rifts in the Bush administration, and with its closest ally, over whether, when and how to proceed to war.

The British media reported Thursday that Blair had urged President Bush to delay military action until next Fall in order to give the arms inspectors time to complete their work. And Powell emphasized in a Washington Post interview on Wednesday that January 27 is "not necessarily D-Day for decision making" on whether to go to war.

Absent any hard evidence of prohibited weapons programs being turned up by the inspectors in the next 20 days, or a counterintuitive about-face by Iraq on cooperating with inspectors, the January 27 report is unlikely to lead to see UN support for an invasion. Even though Britain has begun moving its troops into position around Iraq in preparation for an invasion, Blair is reportedly emphasizing the importance of establishing proof of Iraq's prohibited weapons programs before launching a war. And that will likely reinforce those voices in the administration who want to give the inspectors all the time and help they need to prove the case Washington has made against Iraq before going to war. But UN officials are saying that it may take many months to reach conclusions from the inspections process. And that would mean keeping upward of 100,000 troops on a war footing in the Gulf through a long and grueling summer that could carry an unacceptably high cost to the administration — financial, political and in terms of military momentum and morale.