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Iraq: Unresolved Arms Issues Loom Beyond Sanctions Debate

  • Robert McMahon

As UN Security Council members try to reach consensus on what goods Iraq should be allowed to import, the new Iraqi arms control agency created by the council has announced itself ready to assume full-time inspections. Based on the work of the previous monitoring agency and on available data, arms experts say Iraq's troubling record on weapons of mass destruction make on-site inspections crucial. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past year, the international community has focused largely on the weakening sanctions regime against Iraq. But during the same period, a new UN arms inspection mission has continued to recruit and train experts for the eventual task of returning to Iraq to monitor for weapons of mass destruction.

That mission, known as the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, now has about 180 trained staffers and is said to be ready to make full-time inspections in Iraq. At the same time, the UN Security Council is this month trying to reach agreement on a new approach to sanctions.

A proposal from the United States and Britain seeks to allay concerns about civilian suffering by easing the flow of most goods, while tightening controls on materials seen as having military uses. U.S. and British diplomats are hoping that consensus by the council on a new proposed list of "dual-use" goods would present Iraq with no choice but to allow inspectors to return.

It has been two and a half years since UN inspections took place in Iraq. Baghdad has repeatedly said it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction and that sanctions should be lifted. But UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix told reporters yesterday (7 June) that Iraq may soon be forced to reconsider its approach.

"Until now, it seems to me, Iraq has simply said the restrictions on the export-import will disappear altogether, that what they term sanctions would crumble, they are unjust, they should crumble and they are on the way to disappearing. Now, if the [draft Security Council] resolution is adopted such as it is envisaged now, then it will be clear that restrictions will remain until they cooperate with inspectors."

The UNMOVIC staff is relying for analysis on material compiled by its predecessor mission -- known as UNSCOM -- which it replaced at the end of 1999. Blix said UN inspectors will soon be making use for the first time of imagery from commercial satellites to add to their knowledge of developments on the ground.

Blix told reporters that based on available information, inspectors have few questions remaining about Iraq's nuclear capabilities. But there are still unresolved issues regarding its chemical and biological weapons and missile programs.

UNMOVIC spokesman Ewan Buchanan told RFE/RL in a separate interview that, based on the sophistication of Iraqi weapons systems, the need for on-site inspections is crucial.

"Clearly, Iraq has the knowledge. It has shown its ability to make chemical weapons, biological weapons, and long-range missiles in the past so it has the knowledge, it has a fair amount of the equipment and infrastructure that's required and a fair amount of the raw materials, too. Obviously, there is a concern that in the years where there have been no inspections there could have been a rearmament or a rebuildup of some of these areas. Some are more difficult or have a bigger -- what I call -- 'footprint' than others."

But a former UNSCOM inspector, Scott Ritter of the United States, has repeatedly said that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were nearly eliminated by the time of the last inspections. He tells RFE/RL that on-site inspections are still important but he expressed doubt about whether Iraq had the resources to resurrect its weapons programs.

"Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed, and there are no meaningful stocks of weapons of mass destruction material in Iraq today. It's very difficult to quantify how much erosion has taken place in the last three years, but -- understanding that weapons of mass destruction require access to money [and] access to technology, in addition to the political will to make them -- even if the Iraqi government wanted to make weapons of mass destruction, because of economic sanctions they haven't had the access to hard currency and technology required to reconstitute in any meaningful fashion its weapons of mass destruction."

Other UNSCOM officials, such as its former chief Richard Butler, dispute Ritter's assessment. They see Iraq's capacity for making chemical and biological weapons as the area of greatest concern for future weapons inspectors.

The capacity for seemingly benign ingredients to be used in chemical and biological weapons is at the core of the Security Council's debate over what constitutes a dual-use item subject to UN review.

Jonathan Tucker is an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a one-time UNSCOM inspector. Tucker told RFE/RL he was with an UNSCOM team that visited the Al Hakam facility in the desert south of Baghdad in February 1995. He said Iraqi officials had told inspectors that the plant was used to produce legitimate products such as a supplement for animal feed and a pesticide. But Tucker says inspectors were able to determine that the same plant had previously been used to make anthrax, a deadly bacterial disease, and later destroyed the facility.

Tucker says plants like Al Hakam are ambiguous in nature unless monitors are allowed to take samples on site as well as study subsequent use of equipment. He says present-day plans by Iraq to create a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease will need to be watched closely.

"Obviously, they have a legitimate need for a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine, but a vaccine plant is inherently dual-use, so the same equipment used to make a vaccine could also be used to make anthrax or other deadly pathogens. And we know that, in fact, that was Iraq's strategy, that they did rely on dual-use facilities or ostensibly dual-use facilities to produce their biological weapons."

Tucker says UNSCOM continuously monitored suspect sites using video equipment. He says inspectors also identified and labeled all key pieces of equipment so they could determine if they were moved in any way. A veterinary vaccine facility, for example, would be routinely monitored for any signs it was used to produced biological weapons.

UNSCOM's monitoring mechanisms have not been used for nearly three years, and UNMOVIC officials acknowledge it will take months for any on-site mission to install a new monitoring mechanism. But UNMOVIC spokesman Buchanan says the new mission is ready to follow through on the work of its predecessors.

"We know where these places are, we know what equipment was there back in 1998. And one of the first jobs would be to go back and check that indeed these equipments such as fermenters -- fermenters can be used for vaccines but they can also be used for biological weapons -- and one of the first jobs would be to try to account for these particular pieces of equipment."

Buchanan says most of the monitoring equipment used by UNSCOM has become obsolete because of changes in technology. He says UNMOVIC has been looking to purchase or acquire from governments new sensor technology that would help in monitoring facilities in Iraq. He says there are also new mobile kits that would allow inspectors to analyze samples in the field rather than remove them from the country and wait for analysis from a laboratory.

(Correspondent Aziz Farag of the Iraqi Service contributed to this report.)

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