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UN: Its Fate Unsettled, UNMOVIC Continues Review Of Iraqi Weapons File

  • Robert McMahon

One year ago, the UN inspection mission in Iraq -- known as UNMOVIC -- was at the center of international efforts to determine whether Saddam Hussein's regime was developing weapons of mass destruction. In mid-March, its efforts were sidelined by the U.S.-led war that toppled Hussein. But UNMOVIC continues to function, cataloging Iraq's biological and missile programs and awaiting word from the UN Security Council as to whether it will play a role again in Iraq -- or elsewhere.

United Nation, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Bit by bit, the UN's vast sanctions-era mechanisms for Iraq are closing down.

The oil-for-food program was phased out last month. At the same time, the UN Security Council disbanded the committee charged with monitoring international compliance with weapons sanctions.

The UN's Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC, now appears to be in the twilight of its existence. It still issues quarterly reports on its activities but continues to wait for guidance from the Security Council on its fate.

UNMOVIC's report last week said the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group, which is now leading weapons inspections in Iraq, has not shared the classified information contained in its first interim report released in October.

The Security Council said in the wake of Hussein's ouster last spring that it would revisit the mandates of UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Iraq. It also "encouraged" coalition authorities to keep the Security Council informed of findings on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

But any further UN role in determining Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has not been substantially addressed to date. UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan told RFE/RL that the agency believes its resources have not been used to their full potential.

"UNMOVIC has a great deal of knowledge, experience, expertise, a vast database. We have the attribute of looking at things from a multidisciplinary aspect, not just on single disciplines like the chemical weapons convention or the IAEA. We did things across the board, looking at agents and also delivery systems and assessing the whole thing. In this, in revisiting our mandate, the council should at least bear this, what we see as an advantage, in mind," Buchanan said.

A U.S. official told RFE/RL that Washington is not opposed in principle to sharing information with UNMOVIC or the IAEA. But he repeated U.S. assertions that the question of international inspectors in Iraq must be dealt with at an "appropriate" date after the Iraq Survey Group, led by David Kay, completes its work.

The official said: "With the survey group on the ground, we should at least continue their work and let Kay put together a final report."

Kay told the U.S. Congress in October that no weapons of mass destruction have so far been found. But he said investigators have found significant evidence of continuing Iraqi weapons research and development, particularly on missiles and biological weapons.

The Security Council met yesterday in closed session to discuss UNMOVIC's latest report. It made no new decisions on its role.

Several council members are reported to be favoring the transformation of UNMOVIC into a permanent agency authorized to investigate biological weapons and missile programs worldwide.

One complicating factor to creating a new inspection body to succeed UNMOVIC is financing. The agency has been financed by Iraqi oil exports and was formed as a technical subsidiary of the Security Council without policy-making powers of its own.

But experts like Jonathan Tucker, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute, say the idea of a new UN inspection body deserves consideration. Tucker, a former inspector with the previous UN mission known as UNSCOM, tells RFE/RL that, in retrospect, the UN's record in Iraq is better than it is given credit for:

"The UNMOVIC record -- and UNSCOM before it -- is looking pretty good, given the failure of the Iraq Survey Group to really discover much that was not already reported by the UN inspectors," Tucker said.

Tucker and other weapons experts are concerned that in the chaotic period following Hussein's fall, rampant looting of government buildings may have deprived inspectors of key documents.

Buchanan says UN inspectors in the past relied on Iraqi documents to answer numerous questions, given what he called the "paper-heavy society" that existed under the Ba'athist regime.

"Documents -- which may be the only thing that you can really rely on in the absence of real witnesses or other physical evidence -- documents were sometimes all we had to go by. So, if documents are no longer available, that would be a blow to getting to the bottom of some issues -- at least I expect that to be true," Buchanan said.

Buchanan said of special concern is the 12,000-page weapons declaration prepared by the Iraqis last December in response to a Security Council mandate. The declaration contained a significant amount of what he called "proliferation-sensitive" information that should remain under tight control.