Why Saddam Might Destroy His Missiles

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A U.N. weapons inspector examines an Al Samoud missile north of Baghdad

Iraq's al-Samoud 2 missile may be more useful to Saddam Hussein as a sacrificial offering, right now, than as an artillery weapon. As Britain, Spain and the U.S. square off against France, Germany and Russia in a crucial Security Council debate over Iraqi disarmament, UN weapons inspectors have demanded that Iraq destroy its entire arsenal of the offending missile by March 1. Chief inspector Dr. Hans Blix has declined to negotiate with Baghdad over that demand — leaving no doubt that failure to comply would lead him to report to the Security Council that Iraq has failed a benchmark disarmament test. And although Saddam hinted at a defiant response in a TV interview with CBS, Monday, his handling of the crisis thus far suggests he'll ultimately comply.

It's not that the al-Samoud 2 is, in any sense, a weapon of mass destruction — it is a medium-range missile designed to carry a conventional explosive warhead. But where the missile falls foul of the inspection regime is that its range exceeds the 93-mile limit set by the UN in 1991. (A number of technical specifications also exceed UN limits in ways that prompt Blix's team to suspect it may simply be version 2.0 of a planned long-range Iraqi missile.) The fact that the extent of the al-Samoud 2's infraction is reportedly no more than about 30 miles may indeed give it little significance to Iraq's current strategic capability, but Dr. Blix is insisting on upholding the letter of the law.

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The inspector's demand creates a dilemma for Saddam: Why surrender a whole category of tactical weaponry when you're expecting to be invaded even if you do? But Iraq is believed to have manufactured about 100 of the missiles, which don't have an onboard guidance system, and that would hardly make a decisive difference against the legions of General Tommy Franks. And refusing to destroy them will almost certainly bring an invasion within weeks. Saddam's conduct until now suggests that he is well aware that his best weapons against the U.S. military are political and diplomatic. Every time he has been presented with an "or-else" ultimatum in this particular crisis, Saddam has capitulated so as to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to launch an attack. Despite his defiant tone on CBS, reports out of Baghdad this week quoted Iraqi officials as hinting that Saddam may be planning to sacrifice the al-Samoud 2 to slow President Bush's march to war.

Iraq has not attempted to hide the capabilities of the al-Samoud 2 from the inspectors. Indeed, the information upon which Dr. Blix has based his demand that the missiles be destroyed was initially provided by the Iraqis themselves. While Saddam is unlikely to welcome the prospect of having to get rid of anything his forces could use against an invading army, Blix's demand does offer the Iraqi dictator an opportunity.

The chief inspector has designed his missile demand as a crucial test of Iraqi compliance with UN disarmament demands, which comes in a more crucial week for the Bush administration's efforts to win UN authorization for war. Buoyed by the strongly antiwar tilt of public opinion in Europe and beyond, France, Germany and Russia continue to resist moves to ditch the inspection process and authorize an invasion. But for domestic political reasons, even such staunch Bush allies as Britain's Tony Blair and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi have pressed Washington to seek a second UN resolution before going to war. Unable to secure passage of a resolution authorizing the use of force right now, the U.S. and Britain have opted instead for a resolution that simply finds Iraq in "material breach" of Resolution 1441 — based in part on Dr. Blix's Feb. 14 report back to the Security Council — and notes that Baghdad has "failed to take the final opportunity" for peaceful disarmament. But the antiwar camp at the Security Council are acutely aware that such language would likely be taken as a trigger for the "serious consequences" mentioned in Resolution 1441, even without a clause specifically authorizing an invasion. France and Germany have therefore both pointed to progress in inspections cited by Blix in the same report to argue against a new resolution and to present counter-proposals on a continued inspection process.

With Blix due to report back again on or soon after March 1 — in the middle of the two weeks of debate on the new resolution envisaged by Britain and the U.S. — the al-Samoud 2 test therefore becomes a crucial indicator. If Blix tells the Council that Iraq is refusing to destroy a prohibited weapon, that may put the kibosh on calls to give the inspection process more time. But an Iraqi decision to destroy the missiles under UN supervision could have the reverse effect, providing more ammunition for France, Germany and Russia to argue that inspections be given more time. (No wonder, then, that France very pointedly warned Iraq last weekend that it has no choice but to submit to Blix's demand on the al-Samoud missiles.)

Should he accede to Blix's demand, Saddam might also try to make political capital by appealing, particularly to Arab states, for protection against an invasion in exchange for doing the inspector's bidding. Perhaps mindful of the danger that Iraq could make diplomatic capital out of complying on the al-Samouds, President Bush warned over the weekend that the missiles were simply the "tip of the iceberg" of Iraqi non-compliance. Nonetheless, by taking a hit on his missile program, Saddam would certainly make things easier for those on the Security Council counseling further inspections rather than war as the international community's next step in Iraq. Then again, Saddam's calculations haven't always been the most rational. And Blix's demand on the al-Samouds may also simply be the tip of the iceberg of the inspector's own agenda for Iraqi disarmament.