Blix to Baghdad: I'm Listening...

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Among Blix's demands of Hussein: Iraq must allow inspectors to hold private meetings with scientists

Of course the Bush administration could still decide to attack Iraq at a moment's notice, regardless of the timetable of UN Security Council discussions. U.S. military planners will soon have some 200,000 troops in the Gulf; Washington has secured basing rights in some key neighboring states such as Turkey; and administration officials insist that Security Council Resolution 1441 gives them the right to take military action without seeking specific authorization. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists he has U.S. backing for his country's efforts to seek a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq, and the White House has made clear that it would support efforts to procure such a resolution — as long as the outcome was assured and the process didn't delay U.S. military plans. The quest for UN backing for military action puts the spotlight back onto chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed Al-Baradei, who visit Baghdad this weekend at Iraq's request.

While Secretary of State Colin Powell's evidence against Iraq was given a respectful hearing at the Security Council on Wednesday, his presentation did not change the positions of France, Russia, Germany and other key skeptics of the need for military action. But things could change significantly when Dr. Blix reports back to the Council on Valentine's Day — Powell, after all, speaks as a representative of Saddam Hussein's most avowed and implacable enemy; Blix is the Council's own objective investigator. If Powell sets out a case, based in considerable part on unnamed sources, that Iraq is refusing to disarm, other Council members insist that his allegations be investigated by inspectors. But if the inspectors themselves, after 78 days back on the job, echo Powell's charges, the Council has no option but to apply the "serious consequences" cited in Resolution 1441 as the price for non-compliance.

And Saddam is already in deep trouble with the inspectors. When he reported back to the Security Council on January 27, Dr. Blix noted that although Iraq had allowed inspectors unrestricted access to all sites chosen for inspection, it had blocked unimpeded access to scientists, refused to guarantee the safety of surveillance flights, and, most importantly, had failed to live up to its basic obligation to account for known stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Blix told the Council that the Iraqis would have to do a lot more to be found in compliance with Resolution 1441, and that's a message he has pressed home hard on Baghdad.

As a precondition for returning to Baghdad, Blix and Al-Baradei demanded that the Iraqis allow private interviews with scientists, allow surveillance flights by U2 spy-planes operated by the inspectors, and pass legislation in the Iraqi parliament outlawing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq this week allowed a scientist to be interviewed with no government minder present, and is believed by UN officials to be ready to concede on the other two points. But the inspectors plan to raise the bar a lot higher, warning that "unless there is a drastic change on the part of Iraq" and its willingness to cooperate on the substance of disarmament, the February 14 report back won't be to Baghdad's liking.

It is to be expected that as the prospect of war draws nearer, Saddam Hussein will attempt to avoid an invasion through unexpected initiatives designed to impress the Security Council. He could, for example, offer new concessions or even revelations, and seek to blame his subordinates for any deception of the inspectors. But the patience of the U.S. — and of the inspectors themselves — has worn thin. Absent a dramatic and genuine turnabout by Iraq in the next week, the inspectors will report that Iraq has failed to meet its obligations under Resolution 1441. And while France and Russia insist that Powell's evidence did not change their view that there is no basis to seek immediate military action, both also warned Iraq to changes its ways before February 14. Both countries realize that if the inspectors report that Iraq is violating 1441, they may find themselves with no basis to vote against Blair's resolution calling for military action.

For countries like Russia and France, who have considerable commercial interests in Iraq and a strategic interest in maintaining the primacy of the United Nations Security Council in resolving international crises, allowing the Council to be bypassed by a U.S. invasion of Iraq is the worst of all possible outcomes. Although they, and the pro-U.S. Arab and Muslim states around Iraq remain skeptical of the wisdom and prudence of going to war, if the U.S. decides to invade they have considerable incentive to protect their interests by supporting the action. And the best political cover for making such a switch would be a negative report to the Council from Blix and Al-Baradei. Don't expect a war resolution to pass on Valentine's Day. But unless Saddam makes a dramatic turnabout in the next week, UN authorization for war may come within a matter of weeks of next Friday's report-back.