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Iraq: UN Weapons Monitors Await Role From Security Council

  • Robert McMahon

(file photo) Among the issues that are not resolved in the UN Security Council resolution restoring Iraq's sovereignty is the fate of the weapons inspection team known as UNMOVIC. The team is still technically charged with verifying the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but has been sidelined since U.S.-led coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein. Some council members want the group to return to Iraq and use their expertise to form a permanent weapons inspectorate. U.S. and new Iraqi leaders say it is too soon to decide on the UN inspection role.

United Nations, 9 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Weapons of mass destruction have been a focal point of UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq dating back 13 years. But they receive only slight mention in the new measure endorsing the restoration of Iraq's sovereignty.

The resolution approved by the UN Security Council last night reaffirms the council's intention to revisit the mandates of the UN inspection mission, known as UNMOVIC, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That consigns UNMOVIC to further operational limbo some 15 months after it last fielded a team in Iraq under intense international scrutiny. Despite the minor reference in the resolution, some council members and nonproliferation experts want to see the UN inspections revived.

Russia had sought a reference in the resolution to resumed weapons inspections for Iraq by UNMOVIC. But U.S. and interim Iraqi leaders say it is premature to address the status of UNMOVIC while the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group continues its investigation into chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic-missile programs.

UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan told RFE/RL that the agency is still charged by the Security Council with resolving issues related to some of Saddam Hussein's most dangerous weapons. The survey group to date has found no evidence of major Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But Buchanan said UNMOVIC still considers many of the key remaining disarmament questions it presented to the council to be unanswered.

"Nothing that we have seen from the Iraq Survey Group, or from our own information gathering, causes us to actually change those assessments. So there were still question marks about, for example, the chemical nerve agent VX. There were questions about anthrax, there were questions about missile capabilities and most of those -- as far as we are concerned, at least -- remain open today," Buchanan said.

Buchanan said there has been no formal contact between the survey group and UNMOVIC. But he said the UN mission, now composed of about 50 experts, is still able to conduct valuable historical research into Iraq's various programs.

The latest UNMOVIC report to the Security Council, issued this week, says there is much evidence that, from 1999 to 2002, Iraq procured materials for banned missile programs. Buchanan said UNMOVIC is pursuing a number of investigations into Iraqi procurement programs to trace how they avoided international arms sanctions.

He described elaborate methods used by the Iraqis to circumvent controls. "They had a lot of front companies, they had companies overseas. Certainly some of their diplomatic missions were used as cover for acquisitions of things. They often used very circuitous routes [in which] something would be bought in one country, shipped to another, then re-shipped, then re-shipped, changing the ownership along the way,” Buchanan said.

He said procurement would take place in a number of countries. “[Rather] than buy one whole system from one country, they would sort of break it down into components. So, therefore, they might buy a whole system but [it would be] divided between five or six different suppliers," Buchanan said.

Robert Einhorn is a former longtime nonproliferation expert for the U.S. State Department who now advises on security issues for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He told RFE/RL there are compelling regional security reasons for restoring the inspection mandate in Iraq for UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Einhorn said in Iran, for example, fears about Iraq's nuclear program prompted efforts to start work on its own uranium-enrichment program in the 1980s. Iraq also used chemical weapons against Iranian troops in their war. Einhorn said a new council resolution revising the duties of inspectors in Iraq would help allay Iran's concerns and put to rest a number of lingering questions.

"Iran will want to be assured that the Iraqi capabilities will not be regenerated, and having the UNMOVIC and the IAEA resume their work would help do that. I'm not saying that they should come back in with the same rights as [Security Council Resolution] 1441 [passed in November 2002, allowing UNMOVIC inspectors into Iraq and giving Baghdad 30 days to make a full disclosure on its weapons programs] -- a strict deadline and so forth but they should at least come back in, take a handoff from the Iraq Survey Group and do a kind of documentation and accounting," Einhorn said.

Permanent council members Russia and France have also backed the idea of turning UNMOVIC into a permanent inspection body, to take advantage of the expertise it has accumulated on chemical, biological, and missile programs.

Einhorn said such a move, which would require a new council resolution, makes sense amid the current climate of concern over nonproliferation and terrorism. "I think there is a formal need in the Iraq case to bring them back but I think there may also be some justification to have a permanent [verification] capability that the Security Council can draw on when difficult cases arise," he said.

Nonproliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have also recommended strong consideration of a permanent role for an UNMOVIC-type body, especially in overseeing biological weapons issues.

The Security Council is due to discuss the latest report from UNMOVIC at a closed-door meeting today.
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