Even if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has backed down, the U.N. program to find and dismantle Iraq’s deadliest arms may now be so badly handicapped that inspectors are unlikely to ever complete their mission, U.N. and U.S. officials privately warn.
A secret Iraqi plan to abolish the inspections and new efforts by Russia and other countries to dilute the power of weapons inspectors together are seriously eroding the United Nations’ ability to ensure destruction of all of Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.
“There’s only a remote chance the U.N. will be able to finish its job,” a senior U.N. diplomat said.
The primary problem is in Baghdad, the officials said. Iraq plotted secretly in 1995 to terminate the inspection program, according to Iraqi officials, and Hussein’s recent challenges to the U.N. effort stem from that plan.
Last October, Iraq ordered the expulsion of American weapons inspectors, a crisis resolved at the last minute by Russian intervention.
Iraq’s decision last Oct. 29 “to expel the U.N. team in charge of inspecting weapons of mass destruction … was … neither sudden nor reactive,” Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan said in a little-noticed meeting with Jordanian officials late last year that was monitored by U.S. intelligence. “It was planned two years ago, and the decision was made after a series of Iraqi leadership meetings.”
The Los Angeles Times obtained a transcript of Ramadan’s remarks.
According to Ramadan, Hussein’s original plan was delayed after the 1995 defection of his son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, who managed programs involving weapons of mass destruction. The defection set off a chain of events that led U.N. teams to massive new data on Baghdad’s secret arms programs.
“Kamal’s defection changed plans and compelled the Iraqi leadership to administer the battle in another direction in order to contain the situation created by Kamal,” Ramadan said at his meeting with Jordanian officials.
But the Iraqi campaign was revived last fall because of the “U.S. intention to create a new state of affairs,” he said.
The Clinton administration last year toughened its stand on when economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War might end.
The conflict over inspection teams last October “was the start of the battle, and not its end,” Ramadan said.
The plan is “irrevocable,” and Iraq is prepared for “all developments, including confrontation, which is expected at any time,” Ramadan added.
The comments confirmed long-standing U.S. and U.N. fears that, as it is doing now, Iraq intends to provoke ongoing challenges in an attempt to undermine or destroy the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM.
“So even if Saddam Hussein gives in on all points this time, it’s unlikely the U.N. will return to where it was before this crisis because he’s taken the decision to challenge UNSCOM,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former U.S. official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In the future, he’s likely to be at least as obstreperous and obstructive as he was in the past. He’ll delay inspectors, undermine their mission and threaten their safety.”
The other long-term problem afflicting the inspection program is at the U.N. itself.
UNSCOM has begun to be weakened by subtle but significant challenges to its staff makeup, reporting process and oversight committee, U.N. and U.S. officials say.
“UNSCOM was diagnosed with a terminal disease in October. The only issue is how long before it dies,” said a Western diplomat in New York.
Russia has quietly but persistently pushed to alter UNSCOM by adding up to 60 Russians either for inspections or analysis work at U.N. headquarters. The publicized aim is to make UNSCOM more effective, although the proposal also responds to Iraq’s demand to diminish U.S. influence and the percentage of American personnel.
Russia also proposed that chairman Richard Butler, an Australian, take on a Russian deputy. His current deputy is an American.