As the United Nations opens talks this week on returning UN weapons inspectors to Iraq, the former chief inspectors of Iraqi biological and nuclear arms programs are urging the United States to take decisive action against Iraq. They warn that the appeasement of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by Russia and France would lead to unacceptable risks.
Washington, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A panel of U.S. experts, including the former top United Nations inspectors of Iraq's biological and nuclear arms programs, says Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is well on his way to possessing weapons of mass destruction -- and that only force can prevent him from possibly using them against Europe, the United States, and his neighbors in the Middle East.
Testifying before a U.S. Senate security and arms proliferation subcommittee on 1 March, the panel said the return of UN weapons inspectors to Baghdad would only buy time for the West in its efforts to deter Saddam from developing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
The three-member panel criticized what it sees as dangerous appeasement of Iraq by UN Security Council members France and Russia. It also acknowledged the U.S. has lost its "propaganda war" aimed at showing U.S.-backed UN sanctions against Baghdad should not be blamed for the suffering of the Iraqi people.
The panel's testimony came amid ongoing debate and speculation in Washington that the administration of President George W. Bush may make Iraq the next target of its war on terrorism -- a development most U.S. allies in Europe, as well as Russia, say they would oppose.
This week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to discuss the possible return of weapons inspectors. Annan said last week he hopes the talks succeed in getting inspectors back into Iraq for the first time since they were shut out in 1998.
David Kay, who led UN inspections of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program in 1991 and 1992, said the Iraqi nuclear threat is real -- and imminent. He said that although his inspection team and others helped limit the Iraqi arms program, Saddam has continued to spend millions of dollars to acquire nuclear weapons, and now only lacks the fissile material to achieve his goal.
The panel stressed the unpredictable character of the Iraqi leader and the fact that Saddam has already used chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population and against Iranian forces during their conflict in the 1980s.
Recalling a recent report by German intelligence, Kay made this observation: "The Germans last year cited that -- because of major procurement efforts that were continuing at least through the end of the last year -- in the worst case, without external assistance on new fissile material, Iraq would have nuclear weapons in three to six years."
Another panelist, Richard Spertzel, led the UN's biological arms inspection team in Iraq from 1994 to 1998. Spertzel said despite progress during the inspections, Iraq has determinedly pursued its biological weapons program, which is now more advanced than it was in 1990 and is capable of unleashing fatal bacteria such as anthrax and smallpox as well as anti-crop and livestock agents.
"Iraq clearly placed a very high priority on its BW [biological weapons] program. Not only [in] monetary cost but [in considering] it vital to their national security, and perhaps more important, the security of the regime. A senior-ranking official stated that BW was perceived as a power weapon, and would influence its neighbors to see things Iraq's way."
No one on the panel thought the return of UN weapons inspectors -- which Bush has repeatedly called on Saddam to accept -- would seriously deter Iraq's efforts.
Indeed, the panelists said although a return could help buy time for the U.S. as it prepares other means to topple Saddam, it could also backfire -- by convincing countries that Iraq is complying with UN requirements.
"Most of the proposals for getting inspectors back into Iraq are based on the premise that any inspectors are better than none. To be blunt, that is pure garbage -- just an illusion of inspections. Iraq's past behavior in restricting inspectors' activities is likely to be repeated. Such limitations would make a monitoring regime a farce, which would be worse than no inspectors at all, because it would provide an inappropriate illusion of compliance to the world community."
The panel also said that many key governments, like France and Russia, discount the Iraqi threat in the interest of short-term economic gain through trade with Baghdad. The panel said Paris and Moscow, as UN Security Council members, cannot be depended on to back a new UN inspections team with a strong, uncompromising mandate.
But the experts also acknowledged that much of the world blames the U.S.-backed UN sanctions with "starving" the Iraqi people.
The third panelist, Robert Einhorn -- who was in charge of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons nonproliferation at the U.S. State Department from 1999 to 2001 -- suggested the Iraqi people would have suffered far less if Saddam had chosen not to forgo the $100 billion he could have earned in oil sales if he had met UN rules on weapons of mass destruction.
Former UN nuclear arms inspector Kay said that while he does not believe economic sanctions are to blame for the widespread hunger and privation in Iraq, much of the world still does.
"The starving and lack of medicine of the Iraqi population was a result of Saddam's determination to use the money available for his weapons of mass destruction program. It was not the result of economic sanctions. [But the Iraqis] won the propaganda game, and Americans -- as well as Europeans and many in the Middle East -- believe we are responsible for that suffering."
The panel said plans to improve the UN sanctions regime would have much the same effect as the return of weapons inspectors -- they may buy time, but they won't solve the problem. In the meantime, Einhorn said, a far more direct approach needs to be developed.
"We need to use that time to prepare an effective strategy for the only approach that can be expected to stop [weapons of mass destruction] programs and prevent them from regenerating -- and that is to change the current regime in Baghdad."
During his extensive Middle East tour later this month, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to push for support for a U.S.-led operation to topple Saddam.
Most allies in the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition have so far opposed taking the war to Iraq. But Britain said on 1 March that under the right conditions, it would support military action against Baghdad.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking yesterday (3 March) at the Commonwealth conference in Australia, described the situation in Iraq as a matter of urgency: "If chemical, biological, or nuclear capability fell into the wrong hands, and we know what some of these people are capable of, to use -- as Saddam has done -- chemical weapons against your own people, can you imagine that, thousands of them being killed. These are not people like us, they are not people who were democratically elected. If these weapons fall into their hands and we know they have both the capability and the intention of using them, I think we have to act on it, because if we don't act, we might find out too late the potential for destruction."
Blair is expected to visit Washington next month on a visit media reports say will be used to map out the next phase of the war on terrorism.