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The New Republic December 21, 1998

SADDAM'S TRAP

Why we're doing exactly what he wants

By Scott Ritter

Sometime in the second week of December, inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) will once again assemble in Iraq to carry out surprise inspections of so-called "sensitive sites." These are locations that Iraq claims are related to its national security, dignity, and sovereignty; but that the inspectors believe house documents and other material related to Iraq's production of weapons of mass destruction. Unfettered access to such sites is critical not only for verifying Iraq's compliance with its Security Council-mandated disarmament obligations but also for the conduct of any meaningful long-term monitoring of Iraqi compliance once such disarmament has been achieved. As such, the coming inspections are not only a critical "test" of Iraqi compliance with its recent decision to resume cooperation with UNSCOM in the face of U.S. air strikes, but also a defining moment for the future of UNSCOM and all multilateral disarmament efforts. Yet, in a real sense, this exercise is a sham that will almost certainly play right into Saddam Hussein's hands. Since Saddam has blocked the inspectors from conducting any meaningful information- gathering for the past four months, the targets of their "surprise" inspections will most likely be drawn from a list of suspicious sites dating to last summer. Today, surely, those facilities will be empty, their contents having been moved to secret locations elsewhere. In effect, Saddam will have managed to have his cake and eat it too. He will have prevented the inspectors from gathering any real evidence against him, while at the same time appearing to give them unfettered access to sensitive sites. As a member of UNSCOM since 1991, and its chief inspector responsible for investigating Iraq's concealment mechanism from July 1995 until my resignation on August 26, 1998, I know that this is hardly the first time Saddam has pulled such tricks. In fact, they are at the heart of his strategy for preserving his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and, eventually, getting rid of U.N. economic sanctions (which he has largely succeeded in eluding anyway). Through skillful manipulation of the situation on the ground in Iraq, international public opinion, and rifts among the members of the Security Council, Saddam actually aims to cap his comeback by getting UNSCOM to issue a clean bill of health. It is an audacious plan, but it may succeed, thanks in no small part to the mistakes of U.S. policymakers themselves. If it succeeds, the consequences could be dire. The Baghdad regime-- strengthened by having retained the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and psychologically fortified by having outlasted the world's sole remaining superpower--will rapidly restore its internal and regional constituencies and reemerge as a force to be reckoned with. Since his defeat in the Gulf war, Saddam has built up eight years' worth of resentment and frustration that can only be released through renewed efforts at territorial expansion through armed aggression and blackmail, both economic and military. Even today, Iraq is not nearly disarmed. UNSCOM lacks a full declaration from Iraq concerning its prohibited capabilities, making any absolute pronouncement about the extent of Iraq's retained proscribed arsenal inherently tentative. But, based on highly credible intelligence, UNSCOM suspects that Iraq still has biological agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, and clostridium perfringens in sufficient quantity to fill several dozen bombs and ballistic missile warheads, as well as the means to continue manufacturing these deadly agents. Iraq probably retains several tons of the highly toxic VX substance, as well as sarin nerve gas and mustard gas. This agent is stored in artillery shells, bombs, and ballistic missile warheads. And Iraq retains significant dual-use industrial infrastructure that can be used to rapidly reconstitute large-scale chemical weapons production. Meanwhile, Iraq has kept its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure intact through dual-use companies that allow the nuclear-design teams to conduct vital research and practical work on related technologies and materials. Iraq still has components (high explosive lenses, initiators, and neutron generators) for up to four nuclear devices minus the fissile core (highly enriched uranium or plutonium), as well as the means to produce these. Iraq has retained an operational long-range ballistic missile force that includes approximately four mobile launchers and a dozen missiles. And, under the guise of a permitted short-range missile program, Iraq has developed the technology and production means necessary for the rapid reconstitution of long-range ballistic missile production. Iraq supports its retained prohibited capabilities with an extensive covert procurement network operated by Iraqi intelligence. While images of starving Iraqi children are beamed around the world by American television, Iraqi front companies have spent millions of dollars on forbidden material related to all weapons categories--in direct violation of existing sanctions and often under the cover of the humanitarian "oil for food" program. Finally, Iraqi security forces have kept critical documentation, including the vital "cookbooks" that contain the step-by-step process to make chemical agent, outline the procedures for producing weapons-grade biological agent, detail the final design of the Iraqi nuclear weapon, and provide the mechanical integration procedures for long-range ballistic missiles. These capabilities may seem paltry compared with what Iraq had before the Gulf war. But they represent a vital "seed stock" that can and will be used by Saddam Hussein to reconstitute his former arsenal. His strategy for doing so has emerged over the past seven years of struggle with UNSCOM. That struggle began almost as soon as the commission was created to verity a declaration Iraq was supposed to provide to the Security Council 15 days after the end of the Gulf war. A Security Council resolution required Iraq to set forth the totality of its proscribed arsenal, as well as all its components and the means of producing it. But, instead of telling the truth, Iraq gave a radically misleading and incomplete account. UNSCOM's original mandate, a seemingly simple exercise in conventional arms control verification, evolved into an endless game of cat and mouse. One by one, we managed to tear down Iraq's lies, the biggest of which was its March 1992 claim that it had destroyed all of its proscribed weapons and capabilities unilaterally, without international supervision. Iraq maintained it somehow undertook this considerable task without keeping any records to verity it. Iraq also expected us to accept this disarmament by declaration at face value. But, for more than six years, we refused to do so, reworking the available evidence until we had exposed the failed logic of that claim and almost every other one the Iraqis made. Unfortunately, we received precious little support. Every six months, UNSCOM's executive chairman, first Rolf Ekeus and then Richard Butler, would report our findings to the Security Council. But, instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that Iraq was violating its obligations to the council, the council kept sending us back to obtain even more specific evidence. For instance, one of Iraq's false claims was that it had never had a biological weapons program. However, we were able to find shipping invoices showing that Iraq had received several dozen tons of growth material used for biological products that Iraq could not account for. It seemed pretty damning--but not damning enough for the Security Council, which encouraged us to find evidence of the biological weapons program itself. When, after considerable effort, we were able to do so, Iraq conceded that it had indeed once had such a program but claimed that the program was no longer active. Once again, rather than finding Iraq in noncompliance, the Security Council essentially directed us to disprove this latest lie. Eventually we realized that this game could go on indefinitely. And so by 1995 we shifted the focus of our investigation to finding direct evidence not of Iraq's weapons programs themselves but of the fact that Iraq was deliberately concealing them from us. For this we needed documents: documents setting out the production records of the secret facilities and weapons dismantled by Iraq and hidden away, documents about the alleged unilateral destruction, documents setting forth the methods used by Iraq to conceal its weapons and capabilities from the inspection teams. And, if Iraq did not want to provide these documents willingly, then we would have to ferret them out. Beginning in 1994, we sat for hours listening to high-level Iraqi defectors describe relevant Iraqi documents--who wrote them, who they were distributed to, how they were stored, how they were hidden. We confirmed much of this information through a carefully constructed international intelligence support network. But when we went into Iraq to find these documents we were stopped at gunpoint. We watched helplessly as Iraqi security forces shuttled records from one site to another, with sedans leaving known document-storage sites for sanctuary in so-called "presidential facilities." Over and over again our inspection teams were confronted with empty shelves and missing file folders. But we persisted. Finally, Iraq decided to take more drastic action. In January of this year, we embarked on an effort to expose Iraq's use of biological and chemical agents on live human test subjects. (This effort had two goals: First, to find evidence of the program itself, and, second, to force Iraq to try to conceal this evidence--a campaign that we, in turn, would attempt to document.) We had received credible intelligence that 95 political prisoners had been transferred from the Abu Ghraib Prison to a site in western Iraq, where they had been subjected to lethal testing under the supervision of a special unit from the Military Industrial Commission, under Saddam's personal authority. But, just as we began moving in on facilities housing documents that would support our contention (for instance, transfer records of the prisoners), Iraq woke up to the danger and ceased all cooperation with us. Iraq's official justification for doing so was that the United States and Britain were dominating the inspection process. Later Iraq added the complaint that we were seeking to inspect sites vital to its sovereignty and national security, including so-called "presidential sites." As it had during a previous episode of Iraqi intransi-gence several months earlier, the United States threatened military action. But at the last minute U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan averted war by brokering a compromise solution embodied in the Memorandum of Understanding of February 23. This memorandum indeed forestalled the conflict, but it failed to resolve any of the underlying issues. Instead, it created a two-way trap. On the one hand, it boxed the Iraqis in, committing them to provide us with unfettered access to all sites. But it also backed the United States into an apparent guarantee of military action in the event that Iraq failed to comply. The only way forward was total Iraqi compliance. Or so it seemed. By the time we returned to Iraq on March 5, Saddam had shuffled his documents and material into new hidden locations, challenging us to a fresh game of hide-and-seek. The secretary-general, the Security Council, and the United States all urged us to conduct a quick test of Iraq's compliance, so, later that month, we dispatched a team of inspectors to Iraq. And Iraq, in accordance with Kofi Annan's agreement, allowed us into facilities that had previously been off limits. But, naturally, Iraq had carefully purged the sites of any incriminating evidence. And so we dutifully inspected these sanitized facilities, establishing the precedent of unfettered access but finding nothing related to weapons-making. Fortunately, we also had a secret up our sleeves. For nearly a year, we had been developing information on the man in charge of Iraq's concealment effort: Saddam Hussein's presidential secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmoud, who is considered by many to be one of the most powerful men in Iraq, perhaps second only to Saddam himself. Senior defectors had long talked about the immense secrets kept under Mahmoud's personal protection. But his proximity to Saddam had kept us at bay. In March we finally achieved the breakthrough we had been looking for: evidence that Mahmoud had directed elements of Saddam's bodyguards, the Special Security Organization, to remove documents from facilities to be inspected. Now, we finally had the information we needed to act. We returned to New York in April and began planning surprise inspections of Mahmoud's document hiding sites. But our efforts were cut short by objections from a most unusual source: the United States. Without warning, the United States withheld intelligence support central to this line of investigation. What's more, it prevented more than half of the members of my team from rejoining me in New York (by reassigning U.S. officials on the team and putting pressure on the governments of other team members to prohibit them from coming to New York). The investigative capabilities that UNSCOM had so carefully constructed since 1996 were wiped out. Why did the United States respond this way? It turns out, the Clinton administration wanted UNSCOM to verify Iraqi compliance with Security Council resolutions--but only up to a point. The U.S.'s primary policy goal in the Persian Gulf had become the containment of Iraq through the maintenance of international sanctions--not necessarily the disarmament of Iraq. Thus, for all its ostensible support of UNSCOM, the administration was not willing to go to war in order to ensure UNSCOM the access it needed to fully disarm Iraq. And Clinton's national security team worried that there was no quicker way to provoke a new crisis that would undermine international support for sanctions than through an UNSCOM effort to inspect Mahmoud's inner sanctum. And so the inspection regime was reduced to merely carrying out the illusion of arms control. But Saddam was not about to let himself be contained any more than he was going to allow Iraq to be inspected. Taking advantage of the reluctance to support intrusive surprise inspections (the United States had directly intervened to stop UNSCOM from carrying out such inspections on at least six occasions since November 1996, the most recent being in August 1998), Saddam marshaled his allies in the Security Council--Russia, France, and China--and in the Office of the Secretary-General to change the subject from his refusal to come clean to whether the inspection process was fair. This further isolated those of us on the inspection team, creating an underlying sense at the United Nations that we were somehow to blame for the crises with Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraqi diplomats doggedly tried to split the requirements of verification from the technical practicalities of on-site inspection. In at least seven separate technical forums conducted by UNSCOM since January 1998, Iraq had failed to convince even its allies in Russia, France, and China that it had complied with its disarmament obligations. So Iraq sought to shift the compliance debate away from such matters into the political arena, where Iraq had more flexibility to maneuver given the admission by the secretary-general and the executive chairman of UNSCOM that 100 percent disarmament might never be accomplished. In effect, Iraq was seeking a political resolution to the issue of compliance, one that would undermine UNSCOM's role. The confused policies of the United States vis-a-vis UNSCOM inspections only made Iraq's efforts easier. By August of this year, the United States was fully committed to a policy--albeit unstated--of containing Iraq through economic sanctions and a large military presence in the Gulf, while avoiding expensive, debilitating confrontations between UNSCOM and Saddam. This entailed suppressing the efforts of our inspection team to root out all the facts. (It was for this reason that I resigned--reasoning that it was better to have no inspections process at all than a sham process conferring approval upon Iraq when it deserved anything but.) It was at this point that Saddam pressed his advantage--and once again ceased cooperating with UNSCOM. Iraq's extreme actions were clearly unsupportable even to its allies, and the United States, while keeping its rhetoric to a minimum, took the opportunity to gain international backing for its policy of isolation and containment. The United States gamely allowed the Security Council to deliberate for more than a month before passing a resolution condemning Iraq's actions, then proclaimed victory, on the assumption that Iraq was now more isolated than ever. In fact, the United States had played right into Sadddam's hands. In a concession to France, Russia, and China, the United States didn't object to the invitation by the Security Council to the secretary- general to participate in its proceedings. And Kofi Annan proved to be no mute witness. He proposed a "comprehensive review" of Iraq's outstanding disarmament obligations, a process which shifted the burden of proof from Iraq--where it belonged--to UNSCOM, which would now be required to define Iraq's level of noncompliance and then back these assertions with facts, including the sources and methods used to establish those facts. Iraq's allies on the council concurred. The United States, eager to preserve the appearance of consensus, acquiesced. The story behind the "comprehensive review" concept is an interesting one, too. Its origins lie in the aftermath of Annan's triumphal February Memorandum of Understanding. Seeking to consolidate his diplomatic victory, Annan appointed a special representative of the secretary- general to Iraq. The role of the special representative was ostensibly to monitor the situation in Baghdad and attempt to mediate any disputes between our inspection team and Iraq before they developed into full-fledged crises. In fact, he was to be Kofi Annan's man on the ground in Baghdad--to keep an eye on UNSCOM. Annan chose his man carefully, pulling out of retirement Prakash Shah--an Indian diplomat who was appealing to the Iraqis both because he wasn't from an "Anglo-Saxon" country and because he evinced general sympathy for the plight of a Third World power standing up to the United States. Soon after the February agreement, we found ourselves at odds with the Iraqis over the removal from Iraq of ballistic missile warhead fragments that we wanted to have tested for the presence of chemical and/or biological agent. The Iraqis objected, claiming that the warheads only contained isopropyl alcohol and that we were looking for an excuse to lengthen the inspection process and keep sanctions on Iraq. Iraq appealed to Prakash Shah, who immediately contacted UNSCOM's chairman, Richard Butler. It didn't matter to Prakash Shah that UNSCOM had every right under the relevant Security Council resolutions to remove these fragments and test them. It didn't matter that, given the Iraqi history of unilateral destruction, fabricated evidence, and withheld documentation, these war-head fragments offered the only means of verification available to UNSCOM. What did matter, according to Prakash Shah, was that the secretary-general's Memorandum of Understanding be protected in every way. As Butler relayed to me at the time, Prakash Shah had told him: "There must be peace at any cost." In the end, Shah and Annan pressured Butler to accept a compromise solution that placed a 30~day time limit on testing these materials, although UNSCOM experts contended that up to three months might be required. When UNSCOM tested the fragments, we found irrefutable evidence that the warheads had been filled with both VX nerve agent and anthrax biological agent, directly contradicting earlier Iraqi claims. Still, Prakash Shah continued to maintain close contact with the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, and other senior Iraqi officials, not to push for their unconditional compliance with Security Council resolutions, but rather to lend a sympathetic ear to their complaints about the sins that we inspectors had supposedly committed and to converse about how the secretary-general and the Security Council could be mobilized to rein in UNSCOM and get the earliest possible relief of sanctions for Iraq. As the summer of 1998 wore on and Iraq continued to fail every logical, technical, and scientific test of compliance, it became increasingly clear to Prakash Shah and Kofi Annan that the only possible solution to this problem was political. It was at this point that they hit upon the idea of the "comprehensive review," which would, of course, be a political process divorced from the messy facts and reality of UNSCOM'S technical work. Iraq, naturally, was delighted--seeing the idea as a way of putting UNSCOM on trial and, as such, a potential shortcut toward the lifting of economic sanctions. By the end of September, all that was required was a face-saving means of getting the weapons inspectors back into Iraq in order to set the process in motion. On October 31, in a dramatic move that caught even its supporters on the Security Council by surprise, Iraq terminated all relations with UNSCOM and its chief, Richard Butler. Saddam Hussein timed his move well. One day prior to Iraq's precipitous announcement, the Security Council had issued verbal assurances for active engagement toward the early lifting of sanctions once Iraq reversed its decision and allowed the inspectors back to work. Iraq pocketed this promise, and struck. Shocked into silence, the world stood by mutely as the United States clumsily mobilized for war. No matter how undesirable, war appeared inevitable. And then, at the eleventh hour, Saddam played his hand. He backed down, as any rational leader faced with overwhelming force would do. Relieved, the diplomats of the world rushed in and declared an end to the crisis. Stunned, the United States had no choice but to stand down and declare itself the winner. But the only winner was Saddam Hussein. In wrestling terms, Saddam had executed a flawless reverse. It was the United States that now found itself boxed in. It had no choice but to support the return of the UNSCOM inspectors and--since basic decorum will prevent the United States from conducting any military action against Iraq during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan--to urge the inspectors to conduct a quick "test" of Iraq's compliance. But once again the inspectors' information on target sites has become hopelessly outdated (Iraq having had four months to shuffle its materials to new hiding places). Thus the inspectors will be forced to declare whatever sites they inspect "clean." And, once Iraq has established a record of compliance with these now meaningless surprise inspections, the comprehensive review process can begin. So what is the correct policy to pursue regarding Iraq? The Security Council and the United States have several options. The first, which is the favored option of Iraq and its supporters in France, Russia, China, and the Office of the Secretary-General, recognizes that Iraq cannot hope to have economic sanctions lifted without a certification from UNSCOM that it has complied with its disarmament obligations. This option therefore would restructure UNSCOM organizationally and operationally so that it would promptly give Iraq a clean bill of health despite Iraq's current dangerously incomplete level of disarmament. And then Iraq would be free to rearm even more rapidly, perhaps with the help of French, Russian, and Chinese companies. A second option, similar to the de facto strategy pursued by the United States and the United Kingdom from April through October of this year, is to allow the continuation of a weakened UNSCOM, which, although unable to effectively carry out its disarmament mandate inside Iraq, would also not certify Iraq's disarmament. The hope would be for indefinite containment of Iraq. This option is fraught with problems--among them the lack of international support for keeping the even leakier sanctions in place indefinitely as well as Saddam's demonstrated unwillingness to allow UNSCOM to operate unless he knows that he is going to get a clean bill of health. A third option, one that nearly came about during the most recent face-off this November, is to accept the demise of the UNSCOM inspection regime and seek to punish Iraq through massive air strikes while continuing to contain Iraq through sanctions. But punishing Iraq without supporting the continued work of UNSCOM would only further isolate the United States. (Another version of this option would be massive military intervention, including the employment of ground force for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam. But there currently appears to be little support, at home or abroad for this kind of action.) There is, however, a fourth option. Iraq's disarmament obligations are set forth in a Chapter VII Security Council resolution, which mandates Iraq's compliance and authorizes the use of military force to compel it. UNSCOM is the organization designated for overseeing Iraq's disarmament and verifying Iraq's long-term compliance. Thus, UNSCOM alone holds the key to unlocking the Iraqi disarmament issue. There is no endgame without UNSCOM. Iraq knows this, which is the underlying reason for its continued policy of confrontation and concession. Since 1991, each face-off with Iraq has left UNSCOM weakened, as its rights and capabilities are whittled away. Iraq is in the final phase of its plan to reconstitute UNSCOM to its liking. The United States and the Security Council should not allow this to happen. The world should demand a robust inspection regime and total Iraqi compliance. If Iraq refuses to allow this, or if it is unduly obstructive, then the United States and the Security Council should seek to compel Iraq, through military force if necessary. Military strikes carried out for the purpose of enabling a vigorous UNSCOM to carry out it mandate are wholly justifiable. And one thing is certain: Without an UNSCOM carrying out the full range of its disarmament and monitoring activities unfettered by Iraqi obstruction, the only winner to emerge from this situation will be Saddam Hussein.