New York, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S.-led inspectors continue to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, former UN chief monitor Hans Blix has begun to publicly challenge the way his own prewar mission was handled.
Critics of the war in Iraq see the lack of any major weapons finds as vindication of Blix's cautious approach to the Iraqi disarmament debate in the UN Security Council. He returned to New York this week to promote his new book, "Disarming Iraq," and was greeted by numerous well-wishers at venues like New York University and the United Nations.
"I expressed doubts on the [intelligence] evidence that they had, but I was not in a position to say that 'no, there are no weapons' in the middle of March ."
The mission Blix headed, known as UNMOVIC, was withdrawn from Iraq a year ago in advance of the U.S.-led military campaign to oust Hussein.
U.S. and British officials say Hussein was a threat regardless of whether weapons are found and they point to his failure to comply fully with council resolutions.
But Blix, in remarks this week, suggested overzealousness on the part of the United States and Britain clouded their judgment on Iraq's real threat.
In comments frequently interrupted by applause, Blix told a crowd of 1,200 at New York University on 15 March that in the end, continuing inspections in Iraq would have been a more preferable option than the current situation.
"The U.S. and the UK said that they were upholding the authority of the Security Council. The council adopted lots of resolutions, they said Iraq failed to live by these, they breached them and so these three countries [Spain was the third] say, 'We are upholding the authority of the council." But the majority of the council didn't want to go along. Therefore I said it is a strange notion that three members of the council are taking it upon themselves to uphold something that, for the time being, the others didn't want to do. I think that it would've been far better if they have waited, if we had a period of more inspections during the months of April and May ," Blix said.
In similar remarks yesterday to UN correspondents, Blix accused the United States and Britain of creating a more ominous picture than really existed.
"Saddam was not a threat to his neighbors. He was not a threat to the world. He was a horror to his own people. That was the reality and the spin wanted to make him an immediate threat to the rest of the world. That was an oversell," Blix said.
Blix was asked at both talks whether he feels any personal responsibility for the war in Iraq or whether he was in a position to avert it. He said UNMOVIC refused to make the assumption that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
This was mainly due, he said, to the lack of documentation that Iraq had destroyed its considerable stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as it claimed.
"I expressed doubts on the [intelligence] evidence that they had, but I was not in a position to say that 'no, there are no weapons' in the middle of March . In May, when the U.S. had been interrogating people [in Iraq], that was my conclusion [that there were no WMD in Iraq]. But we try to stick very close to the evidence, as I think a court must do. It was not our job to tell the Security Council, 'you should go to war or not go to war.' That would have been presumptuous because we had a more modest function, but it was also an important function: to ask international civil servants [to] do the job of inspections and report accurately on what we have seen," Blix said.
Blix said that he was puzzled by the behavior of the Iraqi regime in the final weeks before the war. He said he is still not sure of the reason, citing as possibilities national pride, a sense of humiliation, or just a destructive lack of common sense.
"The fact is, they did not cooperate very well and that kept the suspicions alive -- strongly alive -- that what was unaccounted for might have existed," he said.
Blix told the NYU audience he is convinced that the leaders of the countries that initiated the war in Iraq have lost credibility because they used tainted or unsustainable evidence to justify a war.
Blix is a former Swedish foreign minister and also a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He now serves as director of Sweden's Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.
His former agency, UNMOVIC, continues to work in a research and clerical mode but has no formal contact with U.S.-led inspectors in Iraq. The Security Council is due to decide UNMOVIC's fate in the coming months.
Blix believes UNMOVIC could play a continuing role as an international monitoring body for Iraq and perhaps others countries in the Middle East. He noted that Security Council Resolution 687, passed after the first Gulf War, envisioned that inspections in Iraq could be a step toward a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
"It would be a pity, I think, therefore, to dismantle anything that you have. And we would rather like to see an increase in the inspections of other countries -- including Iran, of course, with the adoption of the new special protocol -- and perhaps any other countries," Blix said.
In the meantime, Blix will be able to bask in his new celebrity. Before speaking to reporters at the UN yesterday, he greeted scores of UN employees and signed their copies of his book. The UN bookshop yesterday sold hundreds of copies of "Disarming Iraq" in anticipation of his visit.
(RFE/RL's Robert McMahon contributed to this report.)