Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: U.S. Senators Told Russian Cooperation Essential

The U.S. Congress is holding hearings on whether America should launch a military offensive to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. On Wednesday, a former United Nations weapons inspector for Iraq told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a bloody confrontation could be averted, but only if Russia helps persuade Saddam to readmit the inspectors.

Washington, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations' former chief weapons inspector says Russia could play a key role in preventing a resumption of war between the United States and Iraq.

Richard Butler made the comment on Wednesday during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was exploring the possibility that President George W. Bush may order military action against Iraq for repeatedly violating the terms of the cease-fire in the 1991 Gulf War.

Butler had served as the executive chairman of the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM, that was charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction after the cease-fire.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelled UNSCOM from his country in 1998, complaining that the inspections were too intrusive and infringed on his people's sovereignty. Since then, the U.S. government and those of other Western countries have accused Saddam of resuming his programs to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

According to Butler, Russia and, to a lesser extent, France, impeded efforts in the UN Security Council to return the inspectors to Iraq. The former UNSCOM chief said Russia -- at that time under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin -- decided that it had what Butler called "greater interests" with Iraq than with the United Nations and the United States.

Butler said a renewed war with Iraq could be averted, but only if Russia, now under President Vladimir Putin, changes course and helps to return the weapons inspectors to Iraq. "If we could get Russia to work seriously with us in Baghdad to make very clear to the Iraqis that, 'This is it, this is it, you will do serious arms control or you're toast [you'll be in serious trouble]' -- to put it simply -- we might have a chance. But absent that, we won't," Butler said.

Butler said that if the inspectors are allowed to resume their work without interference, they could strip Saddam of virtually all his weapons of mass destruction.

Two other witnesses, however, told the committee that the inspectors' jobs would be made more difficult in the nearly four years since they were expelled from Iraq. One was Khidir Hamza, who worked as a nuclear-energy engineer in Iraq until he defected to the West.

Hamza testified that after the Gulf War, Saddam mobilized engineers to restore the country's power stations, telephone system, and other infrastructure. After these repairs were made, he said, Saddam assigned them to rebuilding the facilities for his program to develop weapons of mass destruction. But, Hamza emphasized, they were still listed as civilian, not military, contractors. "This provided them with a cover of civilian contractors with actual work to prove it, but at the same time, the weapons-of-mass-destruction work continued unabated. Thus, the computer we used for the nuclear-weapon design is now located in a hospital in Saddam City on the outskirts of Baghdad. If an inspector should arrive at the site, he or she will be shown contracts for the civilian sector," Hamza said.

A third witness was Anthony Cordesman, who specializes in international security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy-research center in Washington.

Cordesman acknowledged that the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War have only somewhat limited Saddam's ability to rearm. But he said the Iraqi president has been skillful at getting some of the arms he needs. "While sanctions have cut off arms imports, I would note that Iraq maintains a very significant import network, which it uses for the weapons of mass destruction as has been described by Ambassador Butler and Doctor Hamza. The only really disturbing aspect to this that has been made public is an increasing flow of weapons out of Eastern and Central Europe through Syria," Cordesman said.

Although it is generally agreed that Saddam is determined to develop nuclear weapons, there is no consensus on how soon he will succeed. Butler said Saddam has been trying to acquire such weapons for the past 20 years, and intensified that effort around the time of the Gulf War. According to Butler, when that conflict brought an end to this effort, Saddam was about six months away from producing a crude nuclear bomb.

Butler testified that he believes Iraq has been able to use the nearly four years without weapons inspectors to make progress again in his nuclear-weapons program. He said Saddam has the facilities and the personnel necessary to build an atomic bomb. Butler said he does not know whether he has the third essential ingredient for a nuclear weapon, fissionable material, but he said others may. "It is possible that intelligence authorities in the West and Russia -- and you all know why I mention Russia in particular -- may know the answer to that question," Butler said.

Russian nuclear scientists and weapons companies, eager and sometimes desperate for money, are widely suspected of selling their services to Iraq.

Butler also said he has seen no evidence that Saddam has shared, or would share, his weapons of mass destruction with terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. government blames for the 11 September terrorist attacks. He said that in his opinion, Saddam believes that to do so would be to dilute his own power.

Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he called the hearing to explore the threat Saddam poses to his neighbors and to the United States and its allies.

Biden said he did not seek testimony from members of Bush's administration for the current round of hearings. He explained that he did not want to interfere with the administration's internal debate on how it would proceed with a military strike if Bush decides that one is necessary. But the senator said he would like to hear their testimony on the subject at a future hearing.

Biden said he believes it is important for Congress to explore all aspects of the situation. That way, he said, if there is military action, the administration will be acting with what he called "the informed consent of the American people."

The committee is expected to hold further hearings today. More sessions are scheduled after the Senate returns from its summer recess next month.