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U.S.: Bush's UN Speech Puts Spotlight On 'Coercive Inspections' In Iraq

U.S. President George W. Bush urged the United Nations on Thursday to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to obey its resolutions on disarmament, or else "action will be unavoidable." The speech was hailed in Europe as a glimmer of hope that a unilateral U.S. war can be avoided with a return to Iraq of UN weapons inspectors. But any new inspections are likely to be tougher and more intrusive than previous ones, and backed up by a military threat.

Washington, 13 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's speech to the United Nations hit the ball into the world body's court, forcing it to find a way to enforce the UN resolutions that have been flouted by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, or else risk what Bush called "unavoidable" action by Washington.

European leaders, opposed to threats by the Bush administration to take unilateral military action against Saddam, hailed Bush's speech as a chance to avoid war by finding a way to ensure a swift and effective return to Iraq of UN weapons inspectors who left the country in 1998 after Iraq failed to comply with the terms of their mandate.

But as diplomats from the 15-member UN Security Council begin debate in the coming days on a resolution calling for the return of inspectors to Iraq, they are likely to take a good look at a new plan by respected world experts that urges a different brand of tough, "coercive inspections."

The plan was released last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a moderate think tank in Washington. It calls for UN arms inspectors to be backed up by an international military force of some 30,000 troops stationed on Iraq's borders that could act at any time to force Baghdad to open up weapons sites, or else face action possibly leading to "regime change." The military force would be authorized by the UN Security Council and possibly led by U.S. commanders.

But overall control would go to the executive chairman of the UN inspection teams, who would have the power to decide which sites to inspect without interference from the Security Council, and whether military forces should back up any inspections.

Jessica Mathews, Carnegie's president, told a public presentation of the proposal Thursday in Washington that the plan represents a "third way" to tackle the Iraqi threat, avoiding all-out war, or doing nothing. But she said the idea rests on a key point. "The absolute critical element would be the pledge that the United States forgoes action to effect regime change for as long as inspections are working. Absent that pledge, made at the highest level with absolute clarity and lack of ambiguity, this would be impossible," Mathews said.

Retired General Charles Boyd of the U.S. Air Force, who helped develop the proposal, siad the military force would be mobile and sufficiently strong to enforce inspection of any site, including sites that Iraq has previously designated as off-limits. Boyd said "no-fly" and "no-drive" zones near sites to be inspected would be imposed with little advance notice to Baghdad. Violations of the bans, he said, would trigger a military attack on Iraqi forces. "Any airplane or helicopter that violates it is subject to destruction. Any assembled forces that begin to move toward the location of the inspection become immediate targets," Boyd said.

Key factors would be critical to the plan's overall success, Mathews said. For example, the inspection process must have no deadlines as that would allow Baghdad to create delays, as it did during the 1990s. Intelligence sharing with national governments must also be allowed in order to provide inspectors with key data that they are unable to generate on their own. And the inspection team must be able to track Iraqi procurement activities with foreign companies and governments.

Still, there's a key question hanging over the entire proposal: Would Saddam accept such an intrusive process, which would dramatically reduce his sovereignty and invite foreign military on Iraqi soil? Mathews believes he would. "It's a very tough choice. We believe it's a preferable choice for [Saddam] than invasion and certain death and certain losing of power," Mathews said.

But many believe Saddam would not agree to such inspections, especially since they would likely rob him of any weapons-of-mass-destruction capability that would help him against an American attack. Patrick Clawson, an analyst at the Washington Institute, helped work on the "coercive-inspections" proposal but said that he has little confidence the Iraqi leader would accept it. "One might think at the end of the day that it's more likely there will be a war, while at the same time thinking these coercive inspections are a good idea and that it would be good if they would work, but still being pessimistic that that, at the end of the day, is going to turn out to be the case," Clawson said.

Still others question the very concept of coercive inspections. An unidentified diplomat from a country on the UN Security Council, quoted by Reuters Thursday, called the proposal "lunacy." He said civilian inspectors would never want to risk going into Iraq with soldiers by their side.

Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the UN arms-inspection team for six years in the 1990s, also helped develop the "coercive-inspections" proposal. He said he was encouraged by Bush's speech and believes that it will prompt diplomats to come up with some kind of multilateral approach to dealing with Saddam. "It's a very powerful call to the Security Council not to just issue resolutions which are then left unattended, but really take them and do something with them. I think this is a good day for the United Nations. It may be the first step to a new, sort of multilateral framework on such essential security issues as we're now talking about," Ekeus said.

The U.S. is reported to be working on a draft resolution on returning inspectors to Iraq, possibly with the threat of military action if Saddam fails to comply.

That may still be too drastic to European leaders, but some of them have indicated they nonetheless are ready to take action. French President Jacques Chirac this week floated the idea of a two-stage plan. It would start by giving Saddam three weeks to let inspectors back in or face a fresh resolution that could lead to UN authorization of military action.

While "coercive inspections" may not see the light of day, analysts say it is likely that the Security Council will seek to put some teeth, such as military backing or the threat of it, into any new mandate for inspections to ensure they don't fall prey to past Iraqi practices, such as delays or deceptions.