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Iraq: Experts Debate Weapons Of Mass Destruction Potential

There are growing signs that Washington may seek to shift the war on terrorism to Iraq in a bid to topple Saddam Hussein, who is believed to be a terrorist threat with the ability to use weapons of mass destruction. With United Nations weapons inspectors absent from Iraq since 1998, has Saddam been able to rebuild his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs? Our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with three former UN arms inspectors in Iraq.

Washington, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With the United States closing in on success in Afghanistan, there are rumblings in Washington that the war on terrorism may soon be shifted to a new front: Iraq.

Although there has been much talk in the U.S. media about the need to go after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- whom many view as a terrorist threat with the potential to use weapons of mass destruction -- President George W. Bush has avoided any shift in focus away from the campaign in Afghanistan.

That is, until this week.

As the United Nations Security Council began debate 26 November on overhauling the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bush weighed in with perhaps his strongest statement yet on the possible use of U.S. forces against Iraq.

Bush urged Iraq, which expelled UN arms inspectors in 1998, to allow their return. Asked what the U.S. would do if Saddam fails to comply, Bush said vaguely: "He'll find out."

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have said Bush's remarks did not represent a shift in U.S. policy. Some observers say his comments may actually have been intended to add urgency to the U.S. position in the UN Security Council, where Washington and Moscow reached a compromise this week on proceeding with sanctions against Iraq.

Still, whether or not they will lead to conflict, the rumblings of an imminent new war are audible.

Its proponents argue that Saddam has had three years to rebuild since the departure of UNSCOM, the UN special commission that oversaw the dismantling of much of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.

Charles Duelfer is former deputy chairman of UNSCOM. Now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Duelfer says that despite UNSCOM's work, Iraq is still a clear threat.

Duelfer says that UNSCOM did not account for all of the country's biological weapons facilities and that Iraq still has the scientific ability to reconstitute the destroyed programs -- and has had enough time to make significant progress, at least in chemical and biological arms rebuilding.

Iraq used chemical weapons during its war with Iran in the 1980s as well as against its Kurd minority. And Baghdad is known to have developed weaponized anthrax, the deadly bacteria used in the recent letter attacks that have killed five people in the United States.

Duelfer, however, played down the possibility that Saddam has re-acquired the ability to build a nuclear weapon, which he was close to achieving before the Persian Gulf War: "Iraq still has the intellectual talent to produce one [a nuclear weapon]. What they don't have, we believe, is the fissile material -- the enriched uranium or plutonium that forms the heart of a nuclear weapon. The possibilities exist, I suppose, for them to acquire that from the former Soviet Union, or more speculatively, to clandestinely produce this enriched material."

Richard Zilinskas, a former UNSCOM biological analyst, agrees with Duelfer. Noting that UNSCOM left intact 80 civilian biological research and production units that could easily be redirected for military use, Zilinskas says Iraq may have redeveloped a biological weapons program: "I would downplay the danger of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, but I would not downplay chemical weapons and certainly not biological weapons. I do think, like I said, it would be easy for Iraq to reconstitute its biological weapons program and come out with some very scary weapons."

Scott Ritter is the odd man out among former UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. A former military intelligence official, Ritter believes that UNSCOM was so successful that Saddam now poses a threat to no one -- except, perhaps, to Iraqi people themselves: "The level of disarmament achieved exceeded the expectations of just about everybody. I'm a proponent of quantifying it at 90-95 percent level and a lot of people will agree with that. What remained are the vestiges of these programs -- not the massive factories; those were destroyed. Not the production equipment itself -- that was eliminated. Not the vast stockpiles of weapons or the raw materiel -- these were identified and eliminated."

Ritter also plays down any possible link of Saddam with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the 11 September attacks on the United States. Mohammed Atta, who is believed to have flown one of the planes into the World Trade Center in New York, reportedly met with an Iraqi intelligence official earlier this year in Prague.

But Ritter, citing the war with Iran and other examples, says Saddam has fought Islamic fundamentalists for 30 years and that he would never team up with his enemy.

He says that since the early 1990s, the chief aim of U.S. policy toward Iraq is the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He says that even if Saddam disarmed completely, the U.S. would likely continue sanctions against Iraq until he is overthrown. Ritter says this explains the remarks by Bush: "The drumbeats of war are ringing in everybody's ear and President Bush has thrown out a potential justification for...the resumption of major military activity against Iraq."

But Duelfer disagrees strongly about Saddam's possible hand in the 11 September attacks, the anthrax letters or links with Al-Qaeda. Much as the U.S. teamed up with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in World War II, Duelfer says that secular Saddam and fundamentalist bin Laden are now united by a "commonality of interest" that will become clearer as time goes by: "I'm convinced that we will see Iraqi connections. I'd put money on it. They have the talent, they've supported groups like that in the past. Why not? You know, Iraq's been at war with the United States for over 10 years now. We may think the war ended in 1991, but certainly Baghdad doesn't."

To be sure, U.S. and British warplanes continue occasional strikes on Iraqi targets to defend "no-fly" zones set up in 1991 to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by Saddam's forces. In the latest strike, U.S. jets attacked Iraqi air-defense targets on 27 November in response to threats against American and British planes patrolling the "no fly" zones.

Ritter believes these strikes will be ratcheted up in the coming weeks to weaken Iraqi air defenses so that Bush, when and if he wants, can launch an attack on Iraq.